Advice when I can’t quite write

“You should write about writer’s block,” says Mr. 13 as he shoves more popcorn into his mouth.

“Nobody wants to read about that,” I reply.

“I don’t know,” he says, “I mean, you’ve been trying to write for a long time today. Aren’t you supposed to write about your life?”

In the not-at-all distant background, Mr. 10 is experimenting on the piano that hasn’t been tuned since before Covid. He has not yet found his way to a tune; I’m not convinced that’s his goal. The random notes are not helping me concentrate.

“You could just publish what you already wrote.” Mr. 13 is still trying to help.

I make a face. “It’s not good enough.”

“Mom,” he is exasperated, “you wouldn’t let me say that. Maybe you need to just publish it and be done.”

But I can’t. The funny story about how today I left the pan of oil on a warm element and set off the fire alarm just isn’t that funny. The Golden Shovel poem about being lonely isn’t that poem-y. The lines I’ve captured in my notebook have potential, but they seem intent on remaining kernels of ideas rather than full-fledged pieces.

The piano continues in the background, discordant, unpredictable, distracting.

Shall I write about being 13? Missing my family? Waiting and waiting for the Canada-US border to open? I could write a memory. I want to be funny, but I’m not feeling funny. I’m just feeling off and this house is full of noise.

Maybe today I can give myself grace. It’s summer. I am taking things in, noticing, walking, being. Maybe today I can accept that what I’m writing is what I’m writing which is this. This is what I’m writing. And it is enough.

“I think you were right,” I say to my son as he heads to bed. “I wrote about writer’s block. It was good enough.”

He smiles. “Good night. Love you, Mom.”

How to make banana bread

It’s a lovely quiet summer morning. The kids are still asleep and your partner is somewhere in the house. You shuffle into the kitchen, put some water in the tea kettle and turn it on. While you wait for the water to boil, realize that you could might as well mash the four overripe bananas on the kitchen counter. Find a bowl (just under the cupboard with the mugs) and mash. 

Mashing bananas only takes a minute, so the water is still not ready. Turn the oven to 350 and add an egg to the bananas. Decide to replace the sugar with honey because you have an awful lot of honey right now. Check quickly to make sure that honey is a one-to-one substitute for sugar. It is! Add ½ cup of honey and – because the water is almost ready – use ⅓ cup canola oil instead of butter today. 

The water has boiled. Spoon out the tea leaves and set the tea to steeping.

Put a dash of vanilla in the mix. Oh, and maybe a dash of salt. Add 1½ cups of flour right on top of the wet mixture. Sub in some whole grain flour for some of that because it’s healthier, right? Um… double-check the recipe on the post-it on the fridge. Where is it? There! Behind a receipt. Receipt… recipe… receipt… recipe…

Our time-tested banana bread recipe – more or less

Yes: 1 tsp baking soda. Dump it on top of the flour. Go ahead and add 1 tsp of baking powder, too. Gently stir those two into the flour so they don’t clump, then give thes whole mixture just a few strokes so it’s moist

The tea has steeped plenty long enough. Take out the tea leaves and set them aside.

Check the cupboards for extras. Today you will throw in some unsweetened coconut, a generous handful of walnuts and another of chocolate chips. Grease a loaf pan, pour the batter in, and pop it in the oven.

Add some milk to your tea. Start to sit down and realize that if you don’t set a timer, the bread will burn. The recipe says 50 min but the honey is sticky… Go for an hour.

Pour a cup of tea, sit down and read.

When the next person comes into the kitchen, agree that the bread does, indeed, smell wonderful.

(I love this banana bread recipe. I’ve made it a million times and it’s both easy and flexible. It makes great muffins, too – though do NOT cook those for an hour! The honey in today’s bread made for a really sticky loaf, so I can’t call it a resounding success, but it still tastes pretty good.)

Reflection-ish

The three of us sit around a small table near the windows in the back corner of Peter’s French classroom. It’s the middle of the school year, so the afternoon light is dim. Peter, my “cooperating teacher”, and Bev, my Masters supervisor, and I have each filled in a questionnaire about my strengths and areas for growth after my first semester of student teaching. So far, we’ve all agreed on the ratings and the whole meeting has been lovely, but now we’ve discovered an area of where Peter and Bev agree and I am the outlier: reflection.

Peter and Bev have rated me as not especially reflective; I’ve given myself the top rating. No-nonsense Bev is almost incredulous. “I just don’t see it,” she shakes her head. Even Peter, always calm and quiet, looks perplexed. My own expression must mirror his. I struggle for words. I am always, always reflecting. How do I explain? Maybe always reflecting doesn’t count. Maybe I’m doing it wrong. 

We talk for a few minutes, compromise on a midway point for the question, and move on. 25 years later, I’m still reflecting on that moment.

What I’m not reflecting on is this school year. I’ve tried. Believe me, I’ve tried. 

Even as I write this I realize that I taught my last class one week ago today. Is that even possible? I have to check the calendar to be sure. Yes. One week ago. Surely that was a lifetime ago? Or at least a few weeks? I knew that time was spooling out unevenly during the school year, but I had honestly hoped that it might straighten out once the chaos of classes ended. Perhaps, I tell myself, this is merely summer time, delightfully different than school-time…but no. I know it’s not. My thoughts spin.

Reflect! I tell myself sternly. It’s important to reflect. I try the exercise Kate Messner suggested for Teachers Write this week: I go outside and breathe deeply. I close my eyes and try to remember a time when I felt peaceful and whole. Just when I am about to give up, the loud voices from my neighbours’ backyard fade and the oppressive heat lifts just a little.

I am on a cliff on the Aran Islands. I am alone. Though I am nervous about it, I have inched my way to the edge and now only the slate gray ocean exists beneath my dangling feet, only the limestone cliff walls fill my peripheral vision. I have never been so completely alone. I breathe with the sea. I breathe in the sea and the wind that slides up beside me. I am alone alone alone. I think of nothing for as long as I can and I watch the water.

Many thanks to TwoWritingTeachers.org without whom I might be tempted to skip writing altogether.

Something stinks

Pause for a minute and take stock: we’re 14 months into a global pandemic. While my birth country, the US, has decided the pandemic is largely over, my current home, Canada, has taken a more cautious approach: here in Ontario we are under “stay at home” orders. After weeks of socializing almost exclusively with our immediate family, we have all become slightly feral. The stay at home orders end on June 2, and while many are rejoicing at the small freedoms we will begin to re-experience, teachers, students and parents are still biting our nails. In its infinite wisdom, the provincial government has neglected to decide if the re-opening of the province also means the re-opening of schools. They are, apparently, thinking about it. Nevermind that the re-opening is happening on Thursday. They will come to a decision when they are good and ready.

At any rate, it’s not like they can make this school year any more convoluted than it already has been. Not only have we been teaching in hybrid “quadmesters” (the word “quarters” just doesn’t capture the essence of this school year – and some schools have “octomesters”), but also no two quadmesters have unfolded in the same way: we’ve had fully hybrid, hybrid until the last month, fully virtual…. Quad 4 has been entirely virtual up until now, but with three weeks left in the year we may be randomly shifted back to in-person hybrid. Or maybe not. No one knows. It’s a mystery.

All of this may explain Saturday morning. I was sitting in the kitchen playing a word game when something outside caught my eye. There, just beyond the sliding glass door, a skunk was destroying my hostas.

I. was. livid.

I didn’t even pause. I jumped up, ran to the door, and flung it open. I tore onto the back porch, clad in my fuzzy pink bathrobe and old sneakers, unwashed, hair unkempt, and cried out with all the fury of a teacher nearly at the end of a school year, nearly at the end of a pandemic, nearly at the end of her rope: “DON’T YOU DARE!” I shook my fist. “DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!”

The shocked skunk looked up from its meal.

“YOU LEAVE THOSE HOSTAS ALONE! THAT’S ENOUGH!”

She stared at me. I stared at her. I gradually began to realize that my actions might have been, well, rash. There I stood, a slightly crazed, decidedly disheveled, middle-aged school teacher in a pink bathrobe yelling across the lawn at a rodent on a Saturday morning. Still, we stared. Then she turned around.

Well, let me tell you, I took one look at that skunk’s butt and ran back inside. Behind the safety of the sliding glass door, I seethed. Our cat, Hera, joined me. Together, we glared.

The skunk, clearly worried that the humans of *this* house might be rabid, delicately picked her way out of the yard and left.

The lesson? Do not mess with a tired teacher at the end of an exhausting school year during a global pandemic. The teacher will win.

a trail of half-eaten hostas

Picture this

Mr. 10 had to write a quatrain for school. Not just any quatrain, mind you, this quatrain had to be focused on one topic, have a distinctive rhyme scheme, at least 12 lines and alliteration. Reasonable enough, I suppose, but he was having trouble keeping all those things in his mind at the same time. The task seemed impossible, so he had put it off for several days. Now it was late.

Last night, he reluctantly agreed to let me help him. We looked at the list of potential topics and he chose ocean. “Great!” I tried for enthusiasm. “Let’s brainstorm a list of words that you think of when you hear the word ocean.”

He glared.
“Oh, the ocean,” I sighed. “What does that make you think of?”
Nothing.
“Why did you choose the ocean as your topic?”

By now his arms were folded across his chest and his leg was jumping. He has big emotions, this kid, and when they swell, they can quickly drown his rational brain. I tried to calm him, but the undertow was almost inescapable. When I thought we were on firmer footing, we started again: what are some synonyms for ocean? His eyes shifted; his brow lowered; his mouth pressed shut. He wasn’t really ready to talk, but it was already 8pm; he’d put this off as long as possible. Bedtime loomed and he didn’t want synonyms. He wanted something else, but I had no idea what. Finally he spit out, “shark.” Delighted, I slid into my spiel, “ooh, ‘shark’! What a good choice! Let’s see… sharks are gray…”

“Shark, bird, ocean,” he interrupted, then clamped his mouth shut again.

He is not stupid, my boy; he is, in fact, loquacious. When school is open, he regularly gets in trouble for talking. He reads, tells stories, is enthusiastically goofy. But not now. “Sharks eat birds from the sky?” I guessed. This, of course, made no sense. “Sharks eat birds on the ocean? Like seagulls?” He shook his head. I was really trying , but I had no idea what he was thinking. He stamped his foot and I saw tears brimming in his eyes. As gently as I could, I said, “Lovey, I don’t know how to help you write poetry if you don’t use words.” I lowered my eyelids towards my cheeks. Breathed deeply. Prayed for patience.

On Saturday, Chris Cluff had asked, “What stops you from writing?” My answer came quickly: “No space of my own; Virginia Woolf nailed it. I’m ready for our family to go back into the world! Also: fatigue, fear (of failure, of success, that my ideas aren’t good/original/interesting enough); too much time thinking about commitments to others rather than to myself.” Chris’s response was, as always, interesting: “i love what uwrite with flowers. its a very cool fluency”.

I was taken aback. I mean, I walk every day, and take pictures of flowers, but I had never thought of this photography as writing. Barring a photo essay, what would it mean to write with flowers? Flowers as fluency? I needed time to mull this over, to consider, but it was a long weekend and my brain was full of teaching and covid and family and life, so I hit “like”, put the comment in the back of my mind, and imagined I would come back to it later.

It turned out that later was now. Mr. 10 was still not ready to speak. “I don’t know to help you write poetry if you don’t use words” and as the phrase flitted between us, Chris’s comment came back… what u write with flowers.

“Want to draw a picture?”
No.
“Want to look at pictures?”
No.
“Want to tell me a picture?”
He said, “sharks are birds of the ocean. They fly through the water. Their fins are wings.” And I was momentarily speechless.

I wish I could say that was the breakthrough, but it wasn’t. No line of this poem came easily. Often his rhymes were internal, not at the end of lines. He would get caught up in his pictures and lose his words. He fell in love with ideas that didn’t work. He struggled through synonyms and rhyming dictionaries. At one point, both of us nearly cried as we looked for a rhyme for “depths”, a word he was unwilling to let go of or even move. It would be “depths” and it would be at the end of the line. No discussion. I tried not to lose my cool, not to write it for him, not to let him off this hook.

We finally finished, exhausted. He had used almost no alliteration, but he’d written 12 lines with a clear rhyme scheme and a focus. And honestly, I don’t know what we learned, but we did it, and some day – maybe when this school year ends – I’m going to figure out what it means to be fluent in flowers.

[the poem – the flying, the strings, the hemming – that’s all him. I *did* teach him a little about enjambment, but just to tell him that it was ok.]

Sharks of the Sky

I dream of the deep dark sea
The best place in the world to be
The water around me is the sky
Sharks, like birds of the ocean, fly

By me. They glide with fins like wings
The trails they leave in the water are strings
Hemming patterns in the depths
Accepting creatures’ last breaths

Striking fast and leaving no trace
The shark must race,
A streak of grey
Hunting for its prey.

A year of walking

Yesterday, one of the writing prompts I gave my students was “create a timeline of no more than six moments from your life that tell a specific story; then do it again with different moments.” The idea behind the prompt is to recognize how selection and omission shapes the stories we tell. As I wrote alongside my students, I had a revelation: most of my stories aren’t shaped by specific moments. Instead, a lot of my stories are determined by a series of events or choices that someone – me, my parents, my sisters or friends – made over and over. The story isn’t one test, one class, one dinner, one disaster or one anything: instead, it’s all the swim practices that led to the swim meets that led to one race and then another; it’s the series of dates that led . It’s not one book; it’s all the books.

My timeline was a disaster – so obviously I shared it with my students. Though they nodded as I explained, I can’t guarantee that they really understood my scribbles. Most of them had managed to complete the assignment with some ease. No messy ongoing moments for them.

As of today I have officially walked at least 1.5 km for 365 days in a row. Once I decided to do this, I went about it wholeheartedly. I was so committed that when we foolishly went to a cottage during black fly season, I walked in the lake. I was so committed that I checked the weather and walked around rainstorms – and sometimes in them. I was so committed that I walked in ice and snow and even sleet (but only once), which I do NOT love. In fact, this is now the first year of my adult life (and possibly even my childhood) that I went outside every day in the winter. It’s the first year I went through multiple pairs of shoes. (I got fancy new ones for today.)

My fancy new shoes for my one-year anniversary.

And now, maybe because I’m deep into studying information with my students – how it is never neutral, how it is shaped & created – I feel like I should, you know, share some life lessons. After all, it’s been a year. Still, I’m not sure that I have any. In ways both literal and figurative, a year of walking is simply about putting one foot in front of another. And then doing it again. It turns out, there’s no earth-shattering moment when all is revealed. There’s just another morning, another day I put on my shoes, another day I head out the door.

And yet, I want to create meaning from this year of walking. I *want* to reflect. Two million-ish steps later, I must have learned something. It’s not a timeline, but…

  1. Have a buddy. (Hi Lisa!) I already knew that having a buddy makes things easier, but I didn’t know that even a virtual buddy would be a real motivator. In some ways virtual was better (story of this year, right?). I had no idea if Lisa had already walked on any given day, so I couldn’t let her down by skipping my own. On days when the weather here was better, I imagined her slogging through snow or muck. How could I not go out when she had faced that? On days when the weather here was worse, I imagined the glory of sharing that I did it anyway. Lesson learned: community counts.
  2. Bite-sized goals. Our original goal was to walk daily from Victoria Day (right before Memorial Day for you Americans out there) until Labour Day. Ambitious but do-able – I mean, walk through the summer? Easy peasy. Then we aimed for Halloween. No problem. I balked a little at the stretch until Christmas – I knew what the weather might do – but once that was done, the rest was a no-brainer. (It was as if I had forgotten February’s existence. It was cold.)
  3. Make it fun. I listen to podcasts, talk to my friends or my sisters, walk with friends, take pictures, find scenic routes. Taking pictures every day has allowed me to slow down & really look at things – no worries about cardio or times. Just walking. I love it. Now, I take pictures every day – and I’m getting better at that, too.
  4. Focus on the basic goal. I am NOT going to run a race – turns out I prefer streaks to competitions. I am not going to sell my pictures. I am not going to walk 30 km. All I’ve committed to is 1.5km each day. Everything else is extra. Extra is fine, but some days 1.5km (and a few snapshots) is enough.

I’m sure there’s more, but there always is. I’m proud of myself in that sort of vague way that comes with milestones I saw coming: I never feel older on the day of my birthday, I found my various graduation ceremonies mostly tedious & I think I was more tickled about finishing a year of walking a few weeks ago when I realized how close I was. A year probably won’t fit neatly onto a timeline for a writing prompt, but as it turns out, I’m not especially good at telling my story through just a few big moments.

Might as well put my shoes on and head out the door again tomorrow.

Classroom Semiotics

I’m trying to teach my 12th graders a tiny bit about semiotics and it’s not going well. Or maybe it is? Honestly, I have no idea. When I pause and use the poll function in the meet to ask if they want to keep talking about this concept or if they’re ready to move on to the next or if they don’t care, the vote is almost evenly split. What does that mean?

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation. (Forgotten that grad school lecture on semiotics and now you want to remember? No need to rack your brains: this visual essay by Thomas Streeter is a short reminder.) The longer I teach in the purely virtual classroom, the more I realize that a big part of my teaching style involves a minute-by-minute awareness of my students’ signifiers and what they tell me about how the students are learning. In the physical classroom I take in the way the students’ eyes move or their heads tilt; I notice when they shift in their seat or when the second person asks to go to the bathroom. I have made a years-long study of the semiotics of high school students, and reading them has become indispensable to my practice. It determines how I pace my lessons, when I talk and what I offer next. Today, as I talk to a screen of circular icons, I realize that much of teaching is deciding how to answer the questions of when and what next. When do we move forward? When do we linger on a topic? What is the right activity to use to increase thinking in this moment?

A good teacher is a master of classroom semiotics; unfortunately, I recognize very few of the signifiers in this virtual world. As a class we haven’t yet developed a culture of significance that we can all recognize. Too often, the one student who regularly leaves her camera on becomes my guide for everything. Does E look engaged? My brain, stuck in the physical classroom, tells me that everyone must be engaged. Did I catch a slight nod? Good, my subconscious accepts that they all understand well enough to move on. Meanwhile, I make up for the lack of signifiers by exaggerating my own body language. I smile and grimace, move my face closer to the camera to give them “the look”, widen my eyes and make giant gestures, as if somehow my body can make up for their disembodiment. It does not work. Or maybe it does.

I am trying to use good online teaching practices – polls, questions, music, quick takes, “waterfall” in the chat and more are all part of my practice – but I can’t figure out how to know what my students know. What are the signifiers when we can’t see?

I keep thinking back to the year I taught in Bulgaria. One of the first things I learned after I arrived was that Bulgarians use a quick upwards gesture with the head to mean “no” and a side to side motion to mean “yes” – nearly the opposite of the yes and no motions that I took for granted. The students knew North American head movements, and some of them – but not all of them – tried to use my signifiers in English class when I asked a question. Early in the school year, I asked if students understood something, and I found myself bewildered by a chaotic sea of bobbing heads. It was impossible to know who was signifying what. Slowly I learned to stop asking yes or no questions; slowly I learned which students were likely to use which system of nods; slowly I learned to gauge their attention and understanding in other more meaningful ways.

Those lessons came near the beginning of my teaching career; today, older and much more set in my ways, I am struggling to change. For example, right now, our class writing time is nearly over and I have no way of knowing who wrote and who didn’t, who found it difficult to get words on the page today and who would keep writing if we had more time. I don’t know if they read during reading time. In five minutes, I will not know who is watching with the documentary we’re studying. I suppose I could tighten up – insist on reading logs and online notebooks, give content quizzes and call parents – but all those years of reading my students have taught me that those things don’t really work. The students learn best when I offer engaging and important work. Since I can’t read the classroom right now, I’m going to have to trust that the lessons I’ve created are important, that the learning is its own goal. It feels like my four-legged chair has become three-legged: this classroom will still balance, but only if I keep paying attention. Like now, when writing time is over.

100 word memoirs

For the past few years, I’ve used Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s idea of a 100 word memoir as one of the early assignments for my classes. It’s miraculous. Over and over, students engage deeply with this task. They dive into their notebooks for ideas; they draft multiple options; they give each other feedback, laughing and talking in small groups as they tell their stories. Best of all, they revise and revise – actual revision! – to get their word count and their craft just right.

Each time I assign this, I write in front of my students. They see how I generate ideas. They help me choose my topic from my list; they almost always choose ones about dating or embarrassing things I’ve done. They watch me struggle with decisions – how should I start? does this ending work? maybe I should fiddle with this sentence – and see my mini-memoir grow and shrink as I aim for 100 words. Sometimes, I actually get to the end.

Today, teaching online, I shared some of my potential ideas and saw the reaction of the two kids whose cameras were on; no point in taking a vote, experience told me that this topic would win. I fiddled and futzed, changed and rejigged. I started 87 words. I changed the opening. Moved the middle. Added some details, took out others. 100 words! But still not quite right. I moved bits, changed sentence structure… They were writing, I was writing. It’s actually pretty fun. In fact, I kept fiddling with it after class until I got something I liked. Tomorrow, I’ll ask my students for feedback, but you can read it here first.

Kissing J Austin
As soon as my lips touch his cheek, I know this is a mistake. I’m already seriously awkward and Pammy has pushed me forward, so I nearly knock him into a shelf full of beakers. Supposedly every girl in the 7th grade is kissing J. Austin for his birthday, but at this moment I realize he isn’t in on the plan. He rights himself and stares at me…horrified? disgusted? Red-faced, mortified, I retreat from the science supply room. Behind me, the popular girls titter and flit around him. How many girls kissed him that day? I never dared ask.

Craft moves: use of present tense, a hook that drops the reader into the moment, 7th grade POV/diction – all the emotions are giant

Failure

Today was the first-ish day of the last quarter of the craziest year I’ve ever taught. First-ish because yesterday was technically the first day but since we “pivoted” (grr) to online learning during our Spring Break, teachers sort of got a day to regroup. Today was also the day that report cards were due for the third quarter. (You can, no doubt, imagine that prepping for new classes and writing report cards for the day after those classes began did not, in fact, lead to a restful break, but I made do.) I finished my comments last night, quadrupled checked the marks and turned everything in.

One of my students did not pass the course.

I have wrestled and wrestled with this failure. We are in a global pandemic and many teens are experiencing trauma as a result. I am regularly astonished that they can turn in anything, much less the high quality work they’ve often been doing. I’m trying to help them out: I’ve reduced the number of required assignments to the bare minimum – well, ok, a *little* more than the bare minimum, but only so that there is time for practice and improvement. I’m using running records to give credit for learning I observe even when not everything arrives in the format I hoped for. I accept late work with no grade penalty. I nag, I prod, I talk to families, and I offer extra support. In short, I think I do a pretty darn good job of helping students find their way to show me their best self.

And yet, some fail. In fact, pretty much every year someone fails one of my classes, pandemic or no. And every time I find myself reflecting on what could have gone differently. What caused this failure? What does it mean for the student? For their family? For their peers? Failure doesn’t occur in a vaccuum.

After I finished up my new class – for the record, they are delightful – I went to a meeting where a group of teachers discussed our school board’s plan to destream math and English, at least at the grade 9 level. Statistics and anecdotes both suggest that our current system is racist. More Black children are streamed into lower class levels and, from there, they become less likely to graduate, less likely to attend post-secondary. The numbers are startling and undeniable. Still, teachers in the group worried about failure. For destreaming to work, we will need to change our teaching practices, change the books we teach, change the class sizes and the adults in the room and and and… it feels overwhelming, even though almost no one objects to the idea. As the meeting ends, the unspoken question lingered: “what if we fail?”

I had to call the family of the student who failed to let them know. Their experience of the class, of my attempts at communication, was different than my perception of it. No one was happy. Again, I struggled because I believe that I was very clear about what was happening; I tried to hear their truth. I tried to make sense of it all.

Sometimes, I tell myself that failure is a gift, that the student must come to terms with what is necessary to pass a course or that they need to understand which skills need improvement. I believe that students should be allowed to choose to fail – I really do. Heck, Jessica Lahey wrote a whole book called The Gift of Failure and business people use the phrase “fail forward” so much that it’s cliche. But our school system is allergic to failure, for students and teachers. We sometimes tell students that they need to take risks to really succeed, but there is little wiggle room if a risk doesn’t pan out. Right up until the pandemic, students would occasionally cry on my shoulder after another teacher in the building gave their annual lecture that “screwing up even one test can be the difference between getting into a good university and a mediocre university.” In my class, I try to de-emphasize grades, but at the end of the day, we all know that the mark matters most once you step foot outside of the classroom. No matter how much I reassured them, the students believed the other teacher far more than they believed me.

Teachers are afraid of student failure, too. If a student fails our class, our burden increases significantly. Suddenly administrators and family members want to see our gradebooks (or evidence records, in our case). We have to explain why the child failed (this week I ticked off boxes on a checklist – missing assignments, significant absences – check, check) and call the family to deliver the news. Often people argue. Sometimes students plead. The pressure to change the grade can be enormous. I’ve heard more than one teacher say that they don’t fail students because “it’s just not worth it.”

I don’t know the answer to all of this. I’ve been writing this post off and on for hours – I almost failed to get it published today, but I’ll slip it in under the wire. But if I didn’t, nothing much would happen; my risks are moderated. Still, here’s what I know for sure: somehow, we have to find the balance where failure has enough sting to spur us onward in a system with enough give to help us bounce. We’re not there yet.

Cookies!

I went for a walk and came home to find them both in the kitchen. They can cook, but they have rarely baked entirely on their own. As I took off my shoes, I heard raised voices and then laughter. Andre walked into the front hall and stage whispered to me, “They’re making chocolate chip cookies. They don’t know that we don’t have chocolate chips.” He cleverly retreated upstairs while I tentatively approached the cooking zone. 

“We’re baking!” Their enthusiasm almost bowled me over. My eyes roved over the counter, floor, children.

“Don’t worry!” said my more cautious elder child, “We started with a bowl that was too small and the butter and sugar kind of went everywhere…”

“It made a HUGE mess,” added his brother, gleefully.

“But we’ve mostly cleaned it up. And now we’re using a bigger bowl. But the brown sugar has lumps so we’re smashing them with our fingers.”

“It’s harder than it looks.”

I offered to help and was invited to finish the creaming. “You’re so good at that,” my eldest said wistfully. 

“You’ll get it,” I reassured. Hoping that my help would soften the inevitable blow, I broke the news that there were no chocolate chips.

They hesitated, then rallied. “We can add Nutella!” said the 10-year-old. “That’ll taste great!”

“And the Dutch sprinkles!” added the 12-year-old, “We still haven’t used them.”

Disaster averted, they pushed forward. “Wait!” Mr. 10 is suddenly nervous, “is it ok that we’ve had the oven on for a kind of a long time? It’s empty! It’s not like the microwave, right?” I nodded and moved away from them. They were on their own.

His brother started to raz him about the time he turned the microwave on instead of using the timer. As they cracked the eggs, they discussed something that had billions of something. They were laughing again. One of them added a healthy dollop of Nutella. The other suggested more. The open laptop was immediately next to the bowl where they were mixing the batter. They tried, unsuccessfully, to use the beaters to mix in the flour. 

I stayed near enough to watch without interfering, keeping my mouth shut and my eyes open.

When the beaters got stuck in the batter, they both left the kitchen in favour of the backyard and the hammock. The batter waited. They returned.

In went the sprinkles. They mixed with their hands because the dough was “too hard”. More laughter. They dragged out the cookie sheets & argued about how big to make the cookies. Then they talked about how much they might spread and how many could go in each row. I managed to say nothing and laugh inwardly.

And now the cookies are baking. They look pretty darn good – and I have a suspicion that the boys might declare them the best cookies ever. They’ll probably be right.

Update #2: 36 hours later, I found some creamed butter and sugar nestled in the leaves of a plant that lives several feet from where the original creaming took place. Luckily, it’s easy to clean

Update #1: The cookies were, in fact, delicious.