Because of you #SOL23 31/31

When I woke up this morning, my left eye was swollen shut. A stye, I think, though no amount of hot compresses have brought it to a point, so who knows, really. At least it’s settled down enough that I can see. I had already taken today off sick; I wasn’t quite sick yesterday, but I was far from my best, and I knew my run-down body needed a break. Turns out, I have slept much of the day because I am, in fact, sick.

When I haven’t been napping, I’ve mostly been deep in a giant bean bag accompanied by a book, the puzzle section of The New York Times, and cats. We haven’t done much, and I’m ok with that.

While I’ve rested, I’ve wondered what I should write for the final day of this Slice of Life Challenge. I’ve wondered this every year that I’ve participated. After a month, I’m used to the practice of noticing and holding on to moments, of seeing how what is happening today brings up memories of what happened years ago. I love the way that writing daily makes me pay attention to the world around me (special thank you to Stacey for dreaming this up years ago to help get through March and to the Two Writing Teachers team for supporting this). I’ll miss this, even though doing it every day is hard.

I teach narrative writing at some point every semester, and I often tell my students that the universal lives in the specific. We connect best with friends and strangers when we share our very specific feelings or experiences – everyone has lived moments of joy or fatigue, grief or giddiness. This challenge is about sharing those moments, creating a community through that connection, through those stories.

I started this month with some trepidation: school systems are in a state of flux right now, and teaching is harder than I’ve ever known it to be. We need to have some hard conversations about things that don’t really fit into the “Slice of Life” model. I wasn’t sure I could write honestly for a month without talking about those hard things, but I did it. Mostly.

When I look back over my posts, I can see some of my concerns lurking behind and beneath my words, but that’s ok, I think, because reading and writing for a month with teachers from around the world means that I can also see the ways in which we hold each other up and, more importantly, how we share the dreams we have for schools and the world we’re striving to create. I can see how many teachers (and coaches and retired teachers and people in the world of education) are dedicated to our children and how, even though many of us are really, really tired, we don’t just cling to hope, we create it.

And so I leave March better than I entered it, better able to find the kernels of joy, better able to rest when I need to and fight for what is precious, better able to teach and, truly, to be taught. If you’re reading this, that’s probably because of you.

See you on Tuesdays.

Breaking the fast #SOL23 30/31

I just got home from school. It’s 9:31pm. Why so late? Tonight, for the first time, our school celebrated Iftar together. 

For those of you who don’t know, as I did not until recently, Iftar is the fast-breaking meal that Muslims eat immediately after sundown during Ramadan. People break their fast with dates and water – after neither eating nor drinking (even water) from sunup to sundown – then they pray, then eat their meal.

This year, students asked if we could organize a communal Iftar because Muslims often break their fast in community. I was raised Christian –  in the middle of the Bible Belt in the southern part of the US, no less – so I knew very little about Muslim traditions, but the students at the school where I currently teach are generous with their knowledge. We talked through what Iftar would look like, checked with the Principal, and off we went.

One student really drove things, and another teacher did the work of clearing the path for her. Soon they had chosen a date, organized catering, and started selling tickets. To make sure that all families – even very large families or newcomers who might not yet have a strong financial footing – felt welcome, the school found funds to cover some of the cost of the meal. 

This evening, the cafeteria buzzed as teenagers covered the tables with red tablecloths and white runners. One student’s mother helped out. They strewed traditional candies along the runners and filled “vases” from the science department (“They’re not beakers, Miss, really!”) with water and white flowers. They decorated the hallway and laid out the dates. Soon, a father showed up, and students started shuttling in the meals – rice and skewers and salad. The imam arrived, along with his wife and young children. Before we knew it, the cafeteria contained a community – from babies to grandparents, Muslim and non-Muslim, students and teachers and their families – well over 100 people in all.

Those who were fasting broke their fast and prayed; those of us who were not fasting or praying finished setting out the food. Everyone came together to eat and the room filled with talk and laughter. 

As we cleaned up afterward, I could feel the joy: our first annual Iftar – and another way to celebrate the community our students create. 

Say my name #SOL23 21/31

“Ok, it’s 9:25. Who wants to do the Land Acknowledgement?”

Around the classroom, grade 12 students shift in their seats. No one meets my eye. A few more kids slip in and find spots while I wait. Eventually, someone raises their hand. They choose to read the printed acknowledgement out loud rather than offer their own. We review the meaning of “stewardship” and then it’s time for a quick book talk – Their Eyes Were Watching God – but before we shift into independent reading, A says, “Wait! We have to do names.”

Students begin to chuckle. “Right!” I smack my forehead dramatically, “Names. Surely we can do better than yesterday?” Yesterday was a disaster – it took three tries before anyone could name everyone and apparently no one – including me – was pronouncing one student’s name correctly. (And this after I had practiced!) Eventually she gave up on us, even though we really were trying. Today goes a little better. We get through everyone twice before we move to reading.

Y’all. It is mid-March. And yes, we are a semestered school, and yes the beginning of this term was riddled with weather days, but we’ve still been together as a class for six weeks. I try to say students’ names all the time (mostly because I think it’s polite and friendly, but also because it’s a research-supported way to give people a sense of belonging and increase engagement), but lately (ok, yes, post-pandemic) it seems like quite a few students don’t bother to learn the names of their peers unless they were already friends before the class started. I’m not ok with that.

I have checked in with the teenager in my home; he admits to only knowing some of the names of his classmates. In fact, he is perplexed by my question. “They don’t usually make us work with other people,” he says. When I ask, “But how do you meet people?” because he is in grade 9 and therefore at a new school and therefore has made new friends, he says, “I already have a group of friends I’m happy with” then gives me a look and goes back to his phone. I push and ask how he met his new friends this year, but he only grunts at me. Minutes later he looks up and says, “that’s actually a good question,” but he doesn’t have an answer.

Unfortunately for my students, I’ve come back from March Break with a fire in my belly: I’m determined to help them connect – and if they can’t or won’t or don’t want to connect, I’m determined to at least give them practice in the skills they will need to do this later on. Yesterday, I told them about this article that argues that we should not allow cellphones in school *and* that we need to “rewire classrooms for connectedness.” So I’ve asked students to keep their phones away and I’m insisting we learn each other’s names. I get the sense that some of them think that this is cute but ultimately useless, but so far no one has said no. 

Today, once it seems like many people know most names, I tell the students about the next step in my scheme: I want them to learn something about the other people in the class. In the front row, the same student who had reminded me that we needed to practice names, shakes his head as he opens his book. “Good luck, Miss,” he sighs. I’m pretty sure I’m going to need it.

Planning #SOL23 19/31

In grad school we once read an article titled “A Little Too Little and a Lot Too Much.” Of course I immediately fell in love with the phrase. While the author was writing about action research, I have found that this can easily describe almost any number of things in my life.

Today, the phrase skipped through my mind, taunting me, as I planned for this week’s classes. I love planning classes (well, mostly), so when a colleague swung by this morning for help thinking through a media unit, I was all in. We narrowed here, widened there and talked until the core of the unit was much more clear. My colleague found text after text; I asked questions to help her deepen her thinking. I loved how our thinking moved from specific to theoretical and back again. I delighted in the way we thought of concrete examples and ways to ground the work. It was fantastic.

After that, I turned to planning my own classes. The Reading class was surprisingly quick to plan. Now that I have a research-based plan (I’m using Dr. Jessica Toste’s free resource WordConnections), I feel much more confident about where we’re going. Next came Grade 12 English. Here, I had already laid the unit out day by day – we’re somewhere in the middle – so today I needed to create visuals to support the information I want to share about how to do academic research. Luckily, I find it wildly interesting to consider what will be most effective in catching and keeping students’ attention.

(Ahem, I find it so interesting that I just wrote two paragraphs about all the things I consider, consciously or subconsciously, as I decide how to communicate a topic. It’s a lot. Then I realized that this wasn’t the point of this post. I had gotten lost in getting lost in planning. Sigh. I’ve decided to include them at the bottom of the post because it might be interesting for you real teaching nerds out there, but most people will probably find themselves going a little cross-eyed with boredom.)

Soon, I was deep in planning mode, imagining what various students might need or want and considering the best ways to help each student learn. When I surfaced again, I realized two things: 1) I had spent far too long planning and 2) planning is one of my happy places. I didn’t mind being “a lot too much” about creating this lesson.

It’s a good thing, too, because my next realization was the time: I had “a little too little” time to do anything like an equally thorough job planning for my Grade 9 class. Fear not! I’m not slighting them or anything – I absolutely know what we’re doing tomorrow. It’s just that I’ve used it before, and I didn’t have the time to tweak it for this semester’s kids.

No problem. I’m used to a little too little and a lot too much. I’ll use what I learn from tomorrow’s classes to help me plan for Tuesday.

*How I plan a slide show or other information delivery:

I call to mind a few different faces from the class. With these people firmly in mind, I consider what I know they know, what I know they don’t know, and where I still have questions. I look things up to see how other places break down these steps. I wonder about lagging skills from the pandemic. What will they need to be able to do this research successfully? What will students need to practice? Where might kids need an off-ramp to think on their own or to pause if that’s all they can do today? What assumptions am I making? Who am I forgetting to consider? Eventually, I determine how many links I need in the chain of ideas to make sure everything holds together.

Once I have the content (and order sorted), I turn to layout and design issues. How many words on a slide before my audience’s attention will flag? What needs to be hyperlinked and what needs to be explained in the document? Where will images help these particular students remember? Where will they distract? And then there’s font: no cursive fonts or curlicues because some students who don’t speak English as a first language can’t easily access it; careful with colours because at least one student is colour blind; make sure the font is big enough to be legible from the back, dark enough to be easily read, maybe go with gray rather than black to reduce contrast a bit… Obviously I don’t think through each of these questions one by one like going down a list, but I do pay attention.

Throwing in the towel #SOL23 18/31

March Break is almost over and I’m still so tired my eyes ache. I’m not ready to go back. The EduKnitNight chat is full of “you can do it” messages as we gear up for the certain chaos of the return to school on Monday. 

“Gently suggesting that we all take space for ourselves – even if just for 20 minutes – today or tomorrow. To help us through the week with a little reserve.”
“Breathe, know that you are enough, be kind to yourself.”
“Messy and underprepared is not a sin.”

There’s a post in there somewhere, but I can’t quite find it. I text my sisters for ideas & they immediately list hilarious moments from our past – the time B put ketchup on her ice cream, the time we hid our exchange student’s speedo before we went to the beach, the time my sister broke her arm (which is funny because we were wearing towels around our necks and jumping off blue armchairs, spinning around and yelling, “Wonder Woman” when it happened). Soon we are talking about my nephews’ upcoming birthday, and…

I still don’t know what to write. I want to write about the concert Andre and I heard on Thursday or the play we saw last night. I want to write something funny about… something… but instead here I am, writing about not writing and laughing at myself because I have been participating in this challenge for six years and I think I have written some version of this post every year and every year I’ve felt badly about it. 

I think about Elisabeth saying once, probably my first year, that this isn’t so much a writing challenge as a publishing challenge, that part of this month is about knowing that some days I’m going to write things that aren’t great and I still have to hit publish because it’s ok for some things to be mediocre. 

And, once again, I have written something – which is better than nothing – and now it’s time for dinner and conversation with my friend. “Messy and underprepared is not a sin” I whisper under my breath. In a moment I’ll post this, heave myself out of this beanbag nest and tomorrow, I’ll write again.

Parking #SOL23 17/31

I used to drive a school bus. Yup, you read that right. When I taught in Washington DC the school was so small that PE requirements were fulfilled through after school teams and young teachers got our commercial drivers license so we could drive the teams we coached.

Most of the school’s bright blue fleet was short buses, but Amy and I coached the (giant) middle school soccer team, so we drove the full-sized bus all over the DC area. We regularly garnered startled second looks from drivers as they passed us on the highway, but that didn’t bother us: we knew we were more than competent. Mel, Head custodian and general fixer of everything (who was also in charge of the buses) knew it, too, which is why he trusted Amy and me to park the size bus after all the kids had been picked up.

Because the school was in the middle of one of DC’s downtown neighborhoods, there was only one nearby space that could accommodate the big bus. The operation required two people and a lot of nerve. We negotiated narrow one-way streets until we arrived perpendicular to a long alleyway. Here, we maneuvered our  blue behemoth in a fifteenish-point turn, then threaded our way between two buildings, the sides of the bus mere inches from the brick walls on either side. About a third of the way up the alley, a pipe snaked up the side of the building on the right; a few feet further on, a meter jutted out of the building on the left. There was no room for error.

Once we made it through the alley, we emerged into the relative freedom of a very small parking lot, where we slid the bus into a spot right against a wall. Finishing was always exhilarating.

Which explains why I blushed with pleasure tonight as a group of us left the restaurant and the woman at the next table touched my arm and said, “I watched you park your minivan. It was amazing.” I looked out the window, suddenly realizing that everyone inside had been able to see me parallel park in a very tight spot, then I grinned, “well, I used to drive a school bus.”

Civilization VI #SOL23 16/31

I have spent all day – and I mean the entire day – playing a game. I started last night, went to bed much later than I intended, woke up & was vaguely friendly to my family (who then went out for the day – skiing 😆) and, after they left, started again.

It has been glorious. My mind has been completely engaged in planning a civilization, sending out settlers, city planning, diplomacy and more. I haven’t thought about school at all – heck, I even forgot to write a post this morning and I certainly haven’t started commenting. Instead, I’ve been Eleanor of Aquitaine, carefully building up my cultural and religious influence as I slowly gain power. I’ve fished and farmed and fought (as little as possible of that last; I maintain a big enough army that people don’t really want to attack me). I settled near Halong Bay and constructed Chichen Itza and the Colossus and the Hagia Sofia and more. Cervantes grew up in my empire, as did Rumi, and their writings have made us all very happy.

I’ve played for so long that my brain is seeing hexagons (the tile shape in the game) everywhere. Now, my family has returned and I’ve baked another batch of blondies (thanks to fellow blogger Arjeha who shared the recipe two days ago – because my children ate *the entire pan* yesterday) and I’m going to go for a walk even though the weather remains stubbornly cold and gray. Soon after that I’ll have to put on something other than sweatpants because we’re going out. Sigh.

Nevermind. In Eleanor’s world, I’m building a theater and an aqueduct. The closest volcano has gone extinct and I’ve circumnavigated the globe. I’m fairly certain that another Vietnamese city will soon ask to join my empire because of my amazing culture.

I’m a reader, and I get easily lost in a good book, but if you ever have a need to forget the real world for a few (ok, a lot of) hours, do I ever have a good game for you. (It’s Civ VI – if you didn’t notice that in the title😉.)

The day after Pi Day #SOL23 15/31

These days, it feels like everyone knows about March 14, Pi Day. I know we didn’t do this when I was younger, but now it’s a thing, so I thought about making some sort of pie yesterday, but skipped it because it’s March Break and I didn’t feel like it.

This morning, I came downstairs to find this (it was on my phone, but I needed my phone for the picture):

I’ll admit, it took me a minute. At first, I thought my husband might be referring to one of our new favourite things which a younger colleague recently shared when I was all steamed up: Cave Johnson Lemons

(Really, you should listen. It’s hilarious.)

But… no, I wasn’t quick enough. Here’s our conversation.

I’m pretty sure (but not 100% sure) that the final picture is from the internet and not from his office, but one can never tell: apparently, in our house, we skip Pi Day and go straight for the Ides of March.

What if? #SOL23 14/31

The first time I remember saying that I wanted to be a teacher was when we were living in California and had friends over for dinner. We were in the dining room because there were too many of us for the kitchen table, and I think a few of us kids were seated in a row on one side. One after another, we responded to some adult who had asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. The boy from next door said he was going to be a pilot, like his dad. My youngest sister, who must have been four, declared her intent to be a garbageman. I said I was going to be a teacher. Both of us were met with scoffing laughter, in my case because, “you’re too smart to be a teacher.” 

For years, I assumed that everyone wanted to be a teacher, kind of like lots of little kids want to be construction workers or, like my sister, garbagemen, and then they got over it at some point. I just couldn’t seem to get over it. I nurtured my secret desire while telling well-meaning adults that I planned to be a lawyer or, later, a diplomat. Meanwhile, teaching leaked through my every crack: I taught swim lessons and coached swim teams; I volunteered as a tutor; I nannied. Even though I attended a college that had no education major, I took a course that involved an internship, and convinced the prof to let me work in a third grade classroom; then I took a language acquisition course, then a children’s literature course. None of these were in my major. 

When I finally accepted an overseas teaching position, I packed a stack of graduate school applications, already printed. I started filling them in after my first day in the classroom; I’d sent them all by the end of my second week.

Teaching is who I am; I am as likely to tell a stranger that I am a teacher as that I am a mother. In fact, I can’t imagine someone knowing me and not knowing that I teach, but lately I’ve been wondering… what if I weren’t a teacher? What might I be?

The serious options:

  • A lawyer – I deeply admire my friends who work for justice and equity through the law.
  • An editor – I have been blessed (?) with a brain that sees spelling and grammatical errors quickly and easily, and I’m pretty good at straightening out complicated sentences.
  • A librarian – I had no idea about all the cool things librarians could do. My librarian friends curate art, help with tech, do research for Parliamentarians, and much, much, more. 
  • A nonprofit worker of some sort – which is what I did between college and teaching. I worked for the Red Cross and for a small nonprofit that worked with some UN agencies. It was kind of cool.
  • A psychologist – which, in some ways, isn’t that different from being a teacher.

The wilder options:

  • An actress – obviously (she pirouettes and takes a bow)
  • A former swim champion turned coach – ideally a champion with some medals or something
  • An organizer (one of those people you call to come help you get your house sorted out) – because I am *much* better at organizing other people than myself.
  • A midwife or a doula – in fact, ever since having my first child with a doula alongside me, I’ve imagined doing this, maybe after I retire. What a thrill to help someone bring life into the world!
  • And, in the realm of the completely impossible, a dancer or acrobat – I have precisely zero ability to do this, but every time I attend the ballet or watch Cirque de Soleil, I dream of being able to move my body like that. So impressive.

I’m sure there’s more I’ll remember after I publish this; it’s kind of fun to think about who else I could be. What about you? If you weren’t you, what would you do?

It’s all downhill from here #SOL23 13/31

The car, warm and humid, smells of dirty wet socks and preteen sweat with subtle notes of Dorito and popcorn. In the passenger seat, the oldest boy dozes, lost in headphones and dreams. Behind me, the youngest cheers, “I know where we are! Now that we’ve slowed down, I can open a window!” and the three middle kids guffaw over a phone. We are on our way home from a day at the ski hill.

I am not much of a skier, but I often wish I were. When I watch people swoosh down a slope and skid into a  splashy stop right at the end of the line for the chairlift, I think that it looks like fun. When I ski, however, there is no swishing and no suavely swooping stops. Mostly, I pizza my way down the beginners’ slope, praying that I don’t look as stupid as I feel.

This is the first year my kids have skied since Covid began three years ago. Today was the first day I have skied in a decade. I wish I could tell you that it went well. Instead, I worried my way around the house as we left, all too aware that I didn’t know exactly what we needed for the day. Once at the ski hill, I sausaged my thighs into snow pants and had so much trouble putting on my boots (bought maybe eight years ago when I became convinced that to be a good Canadian mother I needed to own skis & take the kids skiing regularly, but never actually worn because I’m not actually a skier) that a young woman in the rental place took pity on me and helped me out after she had finished with the kids. 

Immediately, my feet began to hurt, but I’ve forced my feet into uncomfortable ice skates year after year, and I know that ski boots aren’t meant to feel *good* exactly, so I pushed forward. Outside, the boys stepped into their skis and took off. I tentatively stuck my toe into the front bit and pushed my heel into the back, feeling proud that I managed not to slide down the (almost nonexistent) slope as I did so. Then I moved towards the bunny hill, pizza wedge already firmly established.

By the time I got there, my feet were screaming. I focused on figuring out how to get up the tiny incline to the magic carpet that takes tots to the top of the hill. I watched several little ones in front of me get on, and gathered my courage to step onto the mat. All the way up, I rocked from side to side, trying to give my poor feet a little relief from the pain. Just as I began to realize that the pain was coming from compression, not weight, I reached the top and had to return my focus to remaining upright. 

Sliding down the bunny hill without falling took most of my concentration and, at the bottom, I felt a sudden burst of confidence. A much longer “green” slope was just off to my left. I could take the chair lift up and have a lovely easy ski, I thought. I couldn’t see the actual – it was just behind the trees – but I was certain I was ready. 

I remembered how to sit into the chair lift & up I went. I rested my aching feet on the support bar and was grateful for what relief that provided. About halfway to the top, I began to worry about getting off of the lift. I tried to recall the tips and tricks for something I had never been expert at: lift your ski tips, let the chair push you out… I did it! Then I promptly fell over. 

Once I righted myself, I spied the arrow to the green slope and skied over. Then, I stood at the top and panicked. I almost turned around to check that I had chosen the right run, but I knew I had. I took a deep breath, formed a wedge with my skis, and started down. I fell on the third turn. Once you’re on the hill, there’s nothing to do but keep going, so I stood up, took a deep breath and started talking myself down. Soon, I was talking out loud, encouraging myself down the hill like I might a small child, “You can do this, you’ve got this, okay here comes the turn, don’t worry, just put your weight on one leg and… don’t panic, don’t panic… Good job! You did it! See how well you’re doing! Here’s another turn…” I kept the positive patter up all the way down. As I turned for the last time and straightened my skis towards the bottom of the hill, I heard myself say, “Good girl! Now you never have to do that again.” I almost laughed out loud; my subconscious knew what was what.

As I skied towards the chalet, I realized that my feet were numb. When I finally sat down and took off those boots, sweet relief washed over me. Even my winter boots felt welcomingly roomy in comparison. “Well,” I told myself, “I guess that’s it: I’m done skiing forever.” I settled in with my book and became home base as kids came in and out, looking for food and warmth. I felt a little sad about being such a terrible skier, but my feet were really happy to be done.

Hours later, I pile exhausted, smelly kids into the car and drive them home. Over dinner, I describe our day to my partner, and a look of concern comes over his face. “Honey,” he says, “ski boots aren’t supposed to feel like that.” I explain how skates are uncomfortable and my feet are old and my arches need support and… “No. That’s not it,” he insists, “We need to get you some better boots.”

I nod my head bravely. I imagine those swooshing skiers. I thought I was done forever, but I might not be – but right now I’m too tired to think about it.