And then, a miracle occurred

Only years after we started did anyone outside of schools begin to wonder. After all, teachers had been doing so much with so little for so long that people had forgotten that we, too, were subject to the basic laws of physics. Let’s be honest: most people had forgotten the basic laws of physics, so it was easy to forget the rest.

No one questioned how our classrooms were set up, the computers charged, the rooms tidied. No one wondered how teachers were able to give exams, grade all the final projects, communicate with parents, write report cards and start an entirely new semester with an entirely new set of classes and students all in the same week.

When politicians or parents or the public added another thing to teachers’ plates, they never wondered how it would get done. “This isn’t much,” they thought – if they thought about it at all. Soon we were able to give epipens, handle both epileptic and non-epileptic seizures, monitor blood sugar, stop bleeding, re-start hearts and more. We could identify and support students with any and every learning need because we seemed to have endless time to read the latest research and put it into place in the classroom.

Every English teacher read hundreds of books per year so they could always recommend the latest ones. Science teachers set up perfect labs, day after day, week after week, month after month. History teachers never lacked for primary sources. Art rooms were constantly clean. Teachers called home for every absence, every missed test, every concern. We all returned student work the day after it was submitted.

No one really noticed. “After all,” they thought, “that’s what teachers *should* do.” The less generous grumbled, “It’s about time they did their jobs” while the more charitable thought, “teachers seem much more relaxed than when I was in school.”

When the first scientist suggested that maybe something unusual was happening, teachers basically ignored it. “Oh,” we laughed, “don’t be silly. Teaching is easy. We have plenty of time.” When the second voice joined the first, a few of us started to worry. Luckily, it was a long time before our secret stash of time turners were revealed and we had to confess just how many hours all of this actually took…

*****

Sorry. Just kidding. Today we had about three hours to tie up loose ends from last semester, tidy our rooms – or change rooms or even schools – and prepare for all new classes. But fear not, we have three whole days of teaching full time before our report cards are due. Totally normal.

Many thanks to Two Writing Teachers for hosting the Slice of Life every Tuesday.

What I didn’t expect

What I didn’t expect
at the complicated end of a complicated semester
was that he – who talked through the quiet and through the loud and through the movie and through the reading and through the writing and through it all – 
would declare “Done!”
then stand up and walk, ungainly, to the next table.

I didn’t expect him 
to land his tall body, still heavy with childhood,
in the small plastic chair
next to a slender child
who had embodied invisibility since September.

I didn’t expect him to say,
“You can give me feedback” 
unselfconsciously shoving his words in front of his silent peer.

What I didn’t expect  
was that the second boy
who had spent the semester shrouded in his hoodie, 
his face wrapped in the winding sheet of his wispy brown hair,
the boy who had only used his voice to say “no”
that boy
would use the excuse of a keyboard and “nothing else to do”
to lean towards the awkward offer
and accept.

(I was so stunned that I took a picture of the two of them, hard at work. I don’t have permission to share – I didn’t even ask – but I invite you to imagine it.)

Reboot

The email arrived after lunch: “Attention grade 9 Period 1 teachers… mark DECEMBER 20TH on your calendars!”

That’s me. I opened it.

Turns out, I need to mark December 20th – a mere week away – on my calendar because the grade 9 students will have an activity that day.

Y’all. I had plans. We have eight days left before the Winter Break. One of those is full of assemblies and merry-making, so seven teaching days. Since we finished our review unit today, that left just enough time to shoehorn in a tiny tightly-scheduled unit. But to make it work, we need all the days. I’d already cut all the corners that could be cut and still make it function. I stared at the calendar for a few minutes, but losing a day meant losing the unit.

I could whine or complain, but there’s really no use: the December 20th activities will be just what the grade 9s need – and even if they weren’t, I couldn’t change them. So, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, if you can’t change something, change your… lesson plans.

Luckily, I had already confirmed that my afternoon class was going to watch today’s FIFA semi-final whether I let them or not; rather than have fully three-quarters of the class skip and/or watch on their cell phones under their desks, we had agreed to watch the match as a class. So I turned on the game, sat down next to the student teacher, and introduced him to one of teaching’s many hard truths: we had to change all of our plans. By tomorrow morning.

First, we considered the big questions that have been coming up in our class and how we’ve addressed them through various texts. Pretty much since September, students have been voicing questions that boil down to how we come to believe our beliefs and how we know what’s true (though they haven’t phrase the questions quite so cogently.) Mr. K and I spent some time working through various ways to help 14-year-olds complicate their thinking about this. How will we help students approach the topic? Whose perspectives will be centred by our choices? Which things that seem perfect may actually be problematic? When will we let students choose their own exploration? How will we support this? And how will this change fit with the 11 days we have left in the course after the holidays?

Slowly, steadily, we talked through the new plans. By the time Argentina scored their second goal, we had the outline of a plan – an introduction, a story, an activity. When the bell rang for the end of the school day, we had a few resources. By the time you read this, I will probably have most of the rest of the week fleshed out.

Unless, of course, I get another email. Then, we’ll reboot again.

Phone home

A few weeks ago, Jessica – who blogs over at Where There’s Joy – wrote about making a positive phone call home. Oh, I thought, I love making these. In fact, earlier this semester I called home for a young person who often struggles but who had a really wonderful Thursday. I waited until Friday afternoon & called home. On the phone, their father was quietly delighted; by the time the student made it home, their father was over the moon. The student was still happy Monday afternoon when they got to class. “What did you even say to him? Can you call home every Friday?” It was wonderful.

Today, however, I steeled myself for the not-so-positive phone call home. I should probably use a moniker that is more, well, positive, but these are the calls I make when I find myself worrying about a student. Frankly, even with the worry, I often put them off. I hem and haw and tell myself “tomorrow will be different” or “they’re probably at work.” I hesitate, face to face with systemic inequity and cultural differences: what does it mean for me, a white authority figure, to call home when the student’s racial or cultural identity is significantly different from my own? What do I need to understand before I call? What are the results that I might not anticipate? I waver.

Eventually, my inner teacher voice gets louder. “If it were my child,” I think, “I would want to know.” Then, more powerfully, “These parents know and love their child. What if we were a team?” The team thing gets me every time. As soon as I know that I am truly calling to ask the parent to help me figure out how to best support their child’s success, I am ready to pick up the phone.

Which is how I found myself on the phone this afternoon, laughing with the mother of a child who has been increasingly belligerent over the past ten days or so. She was almost relieved that I had called, she said: she knows her child struggles with some parts of school, and she knows his IEP is woefully inadequate, so she had been waiting for a phone call ever since he transitioned to high school. No one had called, and she had started to wonder if we were aware of him at all. Last night things had gone a little sideways at their house – the way things do when kids are growing and rules have to be enforced – and he had come to school frustrated. Knowing that we were both seeing the same things, that each space was feeding into the other, assuaged some of our fears. “How is he in class?” she worried. “What helps calm things down at home?” I asked. We shared ideas and observations, parenting woes and commonalities until, suddenly, we were laughing because sometimes helping teens grow can be exasperating and ridiculous, all at the same time. Somehow we recognized that this is just a moment in time, and it, too, shall pass.

Before the call ended, I reminded her – and myself – of some of the wonderful things her child does in class: he’s whip smart and always willing to speak up. He cares deeply and is making friends. Even though he has had some tough moments lately, he often comes to class early and chats with me. Recently, he mentioned one of her accomplishments. As we began to sign off, I added, “You know, he’s really proud of you. He’s told me all about [the accomplishment].” Her voice caught, “Thank you. After last night, after these last few weeks… I guess I didn’t know.” I laid out our next steps one more time, and we said goodbye.

“I’ll call again and let you know how it’s going,” I said.
“I’m looking forward to it,” she replied.

And you know what? So am I.

Remind me of that the next time I’m hesitating to call home.

October Multiple Choice for English Teachers

  1. How many books have you read since school started six weeks ago?
    • Easily a book a week since all of the students in all of my classes read independently and silently for at least ten minutes per day. 
    • Do you mean the books I read to model reading behaviours for my students or the books I read at home? Or maybe the professional books I read?
    • Does it count if I don’t remember them?
    • [quiet weeping] I keep starting the second chapter but someone keeps farting loudly… in every class.
  2. When you model writing in front of your students, they…
    • watch with interest, asking questions and noticing how I am shaping my work.
    • glance up from their own writing occasionally if they are stuck and need some inspiration.
    • keep talking
    • Wait – I’m supposed to write in front of them? I’m not sure I should turn my back to the class.
  3. How many phones have you confiscated so far?
    • We have incorporated phones seamlessly into our daily routine so that students recognize them as useful learning tools.
    • My students and I co-created classroom rules; as a result, they respect the rules and only use phones at pre-determined times.
    • 14. Yesterday. During first period.
    • [quiet weeping] I’ve started loaning my phone to students when theirs run out of battery.
  4. How many assignments have you graded?
    • We have a routine where students choose their best work every Friday. They polish it and hand it in so that I can provide feedback over the weekend. We don’t need grades because each student has individual goals that they set for themselves and they are monitoring their progress. So far, everyone has an A.
    • Six weeks of school; six assignments. I strive for a 24-hour turnaround.
    • One. The next one is due at the end of the week.
    • One. Mostly. [quiet weeping] Ok, I’m lying. Some students have turned in *something* and I swear I’ve looked at it.
  5. What is the current state of the magnetic poetry on your chalkboard?
    • We have a multi-class collaborative poem that is currently up to four stanzas of rhyming iambic tetrameter. 
    • Students are using each other’s creations as springboards for their own writing.
    • Someone separated the words “pretty flowers” from the rest of the bunch.
    • Even though I removed all of the potentially vulgar words from the set, one student – who has yet to turn in any actual work – has managed to write “I want to tongue your mother” and other vague obscenities every day.
  6. Which unit are you studying?
    • We have eschewed “units” as a colonial construct; instead, each student has determined their own course of study, including stretch goals.
    • We are right on schedule: we’ve completely wrapped up the second of four units, leaving time in the semester for a final project.
    • So… that first unit is taking longer than I thought.
    • I think this semester might be one long unit.
  7. How effective are your anchor charts?
    • My students have worked together to create attractive, informative anchor charts that cover the bulletin boards and indicate that this is *their* classroom.
    • The anchor charts around the classroom both support and reflect student learning.
    • I have some.
    • I’m waiting for the chart paper we ordered in late August to finally come in.
  8. How often do you eat lunch?
    • Daily. With my students. I supervise a club every day. Interactions with students are paramount.
    • Every day. With my colleagues.
    • I mean, I eat…
    • I keep forgetting to pack a lunch. Yesterday I gave a student some money when he took a “bathroom break” and he brought me a McDonald’s hamburger and some fries.
  9. Your sleep patterns can best be described as…
    • An effective routine that allows me to function at my peak
    • 8 hours per night.
    • Erratic
    • I just want to get through a night without school nightmares.
  10. According to your therapist, how many weeks before you go on stress leave?
    • This is simply unthinkable. My students need me.
    • Stress leave? Teaching is my dream job.
    • We think I’ll probably be fine.
    • I’m just trying to survive to November.

Call them by their name – or whatever

Yesterday a new student joined my class. He showed me his timetable to confirm that he belonged in this room, and I asked him his name. He replied with the name written on the paper, then followed up with, “but call me xxx”. So I did.

I know there’s a lot of fuss right now about teachers using the name students ask to be called. (Brief background: in the US, some people are demanding that teachers inform parents when children ask to change names or pronouns; some people are demanding that teachers not do this, in part to protect vulnerable students;  Canada’s laws are different, but the same issue is cropping up.) Just before school started this year, a colleague in my school board posted a thread on Twitter about why we should use students’ preferred names, and spiteful commenters piled on, calling the teacher a “groomer” and worse. I was astonished by their ignorance. Well, maybe not astonished – I’m too old to pretend that I’m not a little cynical about the outrage; but I found it, at a minimum, fatiguing.

Here’s what they don’t know: teachers have long used students’ preferred names. I’ve been calling students what they want to be called pretty much forever, and I have never – not once – phoned a parent to let them know about it. My first memory of this is from years ago when a student asked to be called Kronos. Kronos! My instinct was to say no, mostly because this 8th grader was decidedly neither the king of the Titans nor a god of Time, but before I could say a word, the teacher standing next to me said, “Ok.” So we called the child Kronos. We didn’t phone home or worry about report cards. We just called him Kronos until he asked us to stop.

In that same school I had a student who went by Sarah while her family called her Sally. I’ve had students ask me to call them by their nicknames, middle names or last names (there are a lot of Emmas and Mohammeds out there; sometimes these name changes are a godsend). Before parent-teacher conferences, I often ask students what their parents call them, so that I can communicate effectively. 

For a lot of young people, names are a good place for a bit of experimentation. When we were little, my sister wanted to be called Christy instead of Kim. I have no idea why. I grew up in the South, so I knew plenty of kids whose first names were someone else’s last name – Madison, Perrin, Riley come to mind. When I was in my early teens, I longed for a name that could be mistaken for a boy’s. I blame Little Women for my dreams of being called “Jo” or “Alex” while behaving in unladylike ways. Later, I was awed when Shannon Faulkner took advantage of her gender-neutral name to become the first woman to enroll in the then all-male Citadel. Meanwhile, my aunt and uncle named my cousin Andrew, insisting that he not be called Andy; this worked fine until someone started calling him Drew. These days, he answers to either.

In the classroom, I’ve had students use a gender-neutral version of their own name, use a name frequently associated with the opposite gender, and use a name that, frankly, no parent in their right mind would choose. (I think most of us would try to talk our kid out of “Kronos.”) Sometimes their parents know; sometimes they don’t. It’s never really been an issue.

Look, I’m not naive: I know that people are using the name issue as a proxy for homophobia and transphobia. They say “name” and mean something else altogether. They’ve worked themselves into hysterics over this and decided that when teachers respect a child’s request to be called by a certain name or pronoun, something terrible will happen. In all my years of teaching, calling a child what they want to be called has never – not once – made a child feel less welcome; it’s never interfered with their learning; it’s never made them unhappy. I have 26 years worth of experience suggesting that using a child’s preferred name or pronouns won’t change who they are – but it might make them feel a little more like themselves.

So, when a child asks me to call them a particular name, I say “yes”. Why wouldn’t I?

What we discussed

My friend’s tweet caught my attention this morning as I stared down another school day: pictures of her students thinking and writing about the juxtaposition of the Queen’s funeral and Powley Day. She and her colleagues had worked together to devise a wonderfully thoughtful series of prompts about this, prompts designed to help them think about equity and Indigeneity and the importance of historical thinking. Their lesson went well; the students did some powerful learning. Even as I admired the elegance of the work, I felt a quick stab of jealousy, then a sense of deflation: I had failed to talk about either topic with my classes. Not only that, teachers had been explicitly told that we had to address both of them. One direction came from the Ministry of Education, requiring a moment of silence; the other from our school board, requiring sharing information about Powley Day.

I exhaled, warm breath across my hot tea, and wondered how I had missed this. Then I remembered. We hadn’t discussed any of this because my Monday morning class opened with a discussion of murder. There had been a fight – maybe gangs? – and a knife. Two people were badly injured; one person died. I say “people”, but my students said “kids” or “guys”. No one involved attended our school, but somehow many of the students in the classroom knew or knew of several of the young people involved in the fight. There was a video. They had seen it. The fight had taken place near-ish to the school. Some students had been near the fight. Someone’s family was close to the family of one of the kids involved. 

The details are all still  pretty confusing for me – after all, I learned about this at 9:30 on a Monday morning, and all of my information was coming from 14 year olds. Or, as one student piped up, “I’m still 13, Miss!” The conversation swerved through the classroom, pausing at stops I could have predicted – should we watch videos of someone’s death? – to stops that took my breath away – “If you’re in that sort of situation, don’t call the cops. They could say you were involved. Just get away.” Over and over I reminded students that we had time to talk, that we wouldn’t rush this, that they needed to listen to each other, slow down, take turns. One boy – Mr. 13 – said, “Wait! This is just like that book some of us are reading. ‘No snitching. Always get revenge.’” Heads nodded seriously: they didn’t need to have read the book; they know the rules. I made a mental note to get out more copies of Long Way Down (and sent another blessing in Jason Reynolds’ direction – that book. Just… wow.). Someone wondered how a kid not much older than them might end up killing someone. I brought up Romeo and Juliet – Tybalt, Mercutio, Romeo. Young men, hot tempers, knives… Someone had read that last year – yes, they said, yes, this has been happening for so long.

Slowly, slowly the conversation settled. Someone asked, almost plaintively, “but what are we supposed to do?” Someone else replied, “Make sure this doesn’t happen again.” Someone snorted, “Of course it will happen again.” Someone said softly, “Make sure it doesn’t happen to us.” Quiet descended. They looked at me.

And what could I say? Only the truth: “I don’t know what to do next.” I offered options. I suggested playing the same quiet reading music I play every day and, well, getting lost in another world. That’s what they chose. Books came out. No one fussed. One student, then another, called me over to say, “Miss, I have seen worse: or “Miss, in my country…” I heard stories that I will not share. They were reassuring themselves that things would be ok. Ten minutes passed and we all kept reading. Eventually I noticed people starting to shift their weight, and we went on with class. 

All day, each class wondered and worried about the fight, the boys involved, the police. All day, we created the calm we could. As the last bell rang, I knew I had done enough; we had found our way through. Monday was over. Tuesday would come.

So, no, we didn’t talk about the Queen or Powley Day – heck, my first period barely touched on any lesson I had planned. And I know that’s ok. And yet, I need to remind myself that social media – even that of people we admire wholeheartedly – can be insidious. I know this; we all know it. Next step: remember this lesson first thing on a Tuesday morning when Monday has been so hard.

Presenting

I have been futzing with the same slide show for hours. Hours and hours and hours. I’ve added some icons, resized them, resized them again. I changed fill colours and checked fonts. Oh, and I re-jigged one slide from three columns to four. That took at least 30 minutes and somehow seemed very very important.

I could be doing other things, of course. I could be helping with dinner or practicing on Duolingo. I could be heading to Knit Night or reading a book. I could be relaxing or chatting with my sister. But the slide show keeps calling me.

Tomorrow I will be doing my first-ever presentation at a conference. I am a little nervous. I have been reassuring myself that a teacher being nervous about a presentation is, honestly, silly. After all, I present all the time in the classroom, right? (Ok, well, not so much lately since I’ve tried to make my classroom much more student-driven, but I definitely presented for years.) And I’ve co-hosted an online book club for colleagues – complete with slide shows! – with no problem. And I’ve spoken on podcasts! How different can this be? (Different. It can be different.)

And it’s not like I’m doing this alone. My friend, mentor & colleague, Melanie White, is presenting the session with me. She is, frankly, inspirational: a powerhouse of thinking fueled by an almost unimaginable volume of reading and listening. In fact, I’m pretty sure that *she* is the reason people will attend. After all, *I* would attend her session in a heartbeat. (And yes, Melanie, I see you reading this and shaking your head. Let me have my nervous moment over here.)

Even as I write this, I am starting to laugh at myself a little. Sure, I am nervous – but writing about it down makes me realize that perhaps this is not as big a deal as I think. After all, Sarah Zerwin (of the book Point-less) was the keynote speaker today, and she presented for 2.5 hours. Now *that* would be nerve-wracking. She nailed it: my brain was spinning with ideas and questions right up to the last moments. And she told us that it was her first time presenting for that length of time – and that she over prepped. Sigh… such a teacher move.

Which brings me back to that slide show for tomorrow. I’m pretty sure that I need to just double-check a few more of the slides. And maybe tweak the script a little. I swear I won’t add any more columns, but one more icon might make all the difference…

(Wish us luck! Here’s hoping we share things others find useful.)

Many thanks to twowritingteachers.org for hosting this space for teacher-writers.

Almost the end

Knit Night starts in 6 minutes and I do not have a project on the go. I always have something half-finished or nearly-dreamed, but tonight, despite oodles of patterns and skeins of yarn, I am at loose ends.

I could cry “end of the school year!” and “I’m so busy!” and skip Knit Night to mark student work, but I’ve marked everything they’ve turned in. I should be pleased about this, but I know the deluge awaits: missing assignments will magically appear by Friday and my weekend will be full.

Tonight is Tuesday, and I have not yet written a “Slice of Life,” though I meant to write last night and again this morning. I have a million half-started ideas and drafts stashed away in journals and various corners of the internet, but tonight none of them seem willing to fledge themselves into fully formed posts.

I’m even between books, and though I have half a dozen on my nightstand, none of them feel quite right. I suppose I’ll have to start *something* tonight, I can’t sleep if I don’t read, but I don’t know what it will be.

Clearly, I am almost-the-end-of-the-school-year tired. I am the tired that comes the week before the week before. Next week is the flurry – grad breakfasts and rehearsals and commencement and last days. Next week we will buzz with energy and fill the school with excitement. My evenings will be full of the well-earned exhaustion of a job (nearly) done.

Tonight I’m the tired that arrives two weeks before school ends – full of regret and longing. How much more I wish we had done! Oh, how much more we could do together! But we have finished the projects – well, nearly – and no new ones are on the horizon. Instead, what lies ahead is goodbye. We will celebrate the journey and look to the future and it will be good.

But now I’m 6 minutes late for Knit Night, and I don’t have a project on the go, but I know they’ll be happy to have me anyway. And I’ll probably come up with a new project. I always do.

Breaking up is hard to do

I have broken up with Hamlet on more than one occasion. The first time was in the Spring. It’s so lovely out, I thought, and this play is so tragic. Let’s read something more cheerful. We did. But the breakup didn’t take – Hamlet and I tried again a semester later. It didn’t last. It’s winter, I thought, and everyone dies in this play. Let’s read something more current. So I left him again. This time I was sure we were over. We stayed apart for a couple of years.

Times changed. In the English office, we teachers discussed whether or not we should teach Shakespeare every year of high school. I maintained that, while I love Shakespeare, he is over-represented in our curriculum. Some of us argued that great literature continues to expand and wondered about the place of a long-dead English guy in our students’ world. Others insisted that Shakespeare is the pinnacle of literature. We didn’t reach a conclusion – how could we? – but Hamlet and I stayed broken up. Each semester I asked students if they thought we should get back together; every time the nos far outweighed the yesses.

Then, during the pandemic online learning, a few students picked Hamlet for their choice unit, so I got to spend some time with him again. I was… intrigued both by the on-line options and by the students’ reactions to the play. They loved it – and Hamlet was on my mind again. Last semester we were in a weird pandemic limbo so I didn’t even think about Hamlet, but this semester… well, we had enough time for one more unit before the end of the year and I offered options. Hamlet was one of them – but I also offered a focus on social media, a “banned book” book club, a non-fiction children’s book study. They chose Hamlet.

I was wary – our class includes students from all over the world, some of whom are still learning English. (Honestly, in many ways we are *all* still learning English – but that’s another post.) They have plans to study computer science, engineering, medicine, economics, political science and more. I don’t think any of them plan to study Literature. And look, I know why I find Hamlet attractive, but I was unsure that he was the right fit for them. Still, it’s what they chose.

So, cautiously, I introduced them. We got our bearings and set some goals for our time together – boundaries, if you will: no, we will not read every word; yes, we will actually say the words on the page; yes, we can use No Fear Shakespeare and the internet; no, we will not stay in our seats. Then, tentatively, I invited Hamlet back into the classroom.

Look, I said, the play starts with a question – but the wrong person is asking it. Soon, students were patrolling the ramparts and trying to decide if they believed in ghosts. By Tuesday, someone gave a low whistle when Claudius taunted Hamlet, “’tis unmanly grief”. That’s HARSH, Miss. Another student replied, Well, he is behaving like a jerk. A student who has a spare during our period has started attending the class, just to read along. Today, Hamlet compared his dead father to a sun god and thought about killing himself because it was, frankly, all too much. He’s so *dramatic* sighed one student. I mean, it is kind of a terrible situation, but still. A lively discussion broke out about Hamlet’s response to all this – which made it that much worse when Horatio showed up and said, um, so, about your dad… “methinks I saw him yesternight.” One student shook her head gravely and said, Oh, this is NOT going to go well.

Tomorrow we will meet Ophelia. And I probably shouldn’t tell her, but I think I just got back together with Hamlet. Again.

Many thanks to the team at Two Writing Teachers for hosting this weekly space for blogging.