Post-pandemic classroom chaos

Somewhere in the middle of Week One, I had to confiscate the thumbtacks and hide the Sharpies because some of my grade 9 students were using them “inappropriately”. Yup, they were poking each other and drawing, well, everywhere. During Week Three, someone repurposed a pin as a tiny rapier and surreptitiously attacked their classmates. Someone else found spitballs in their hair. I have had to keep both a basketball and a model rocket (“it really works”) at my desk.

Since then, I’ve reminded people to sit down – and reminded and reminded and reminded – not to swear in class (at least not at other people), not to talk while others are talking, not to throw spitballs (seriously, who does that anymore?) or erasers or anything, really, and finally – and somehow most shockingly – not to tie pencils into their hair and then swing their head around to see what will happen. Sometimes I feel like an ogre, but I promise that I am not: I’m just helping students remember how to interact with a group of people outside of their family, a group of people with a purpose beyond amusement. 

To make school better for them, I’ve surveyed students about their interests, offered them choice in reading and choice of writing topics. I’ve tried to create activities that allow students to move (we’ve only recently been allowed to let students work in small groups – I think – it’s hard to keep up with the rules) and to work with peers (or not, if they prefer). I’ve tried to identify learning barriers in my classroom and begun to work towards influencing the ones I can. I let students leave their backpacks in my room at lunchtime (no lockers), and I chat with them whenever they pop by. I’ve played innumerable games of tic-tac-toe with one student who doesn’t yet believe me that, played properly, it will always be a tie.

We take long breaks outdoors during each 2.5 hour class. We get social breaks during class time and… it’s exhausting. Teachers everywhere – not just in my school or my city or even my province – teachers I know from all over North America are talking about how different the kids are this year, how they are wild or immature or out of practice. We tell each other that they have forgotten how to school. And they have. Some of the stories are wild – a purposely broken finger, destroyed bathrooms, public displays of what should be very private acts. And all around us, non-teachers share their opinions: articles, podcasts, tweets and posts tell us that this chaos is good – let’s get rid of compliance and control! – or bad – learning loss is awful and they will never catch up! – but we’re still left with 26 fourteen year olds in a small space for hours every day.

I want to complain – heck, I do complain – but sometime last week I remembered a story about my friend Michelle. Michelle who teaches elementary school, who’s married to a pastor and has raised two lovely children. Michelle who collects picture books signed by the author and is incredibly thoughtful. Michelle who is one of the kindest people you could ever meet. But that’s not the story. Instead, I remembered that when we were in 8th grade she kicked Ken in the groin – hard. I don’t remember why. I do remember that we girls only vaguely understood that this was profoundly painful. I do remember that a teacher pulled her aside and explained exactly why this was particularly wrong – and that later she told us, astonished, about how much damage this could do. She was terribly chagrined – there were tears – and apologized quite sincerely. Ken recovered and 8th grade continued apace, this action soon overshadowed by someone else’s particularly stupid decision.

Until this year, until last week, in fact, I had never thought about what our 8th grade teachers must have said in the teachers’ lounge afterwards. I suspect that they shook their heads ruefully and maybe chuckled a little at the drama of the situation. I imagine that they took some deep breaths and made comments about 8th graders and immaturity. I’m pretty sure they didn’t write Michelle off or worry that she would turn out to be a bad one. I don’t think they decided that we as a group were a particularly mean or immature. I bet they took it all in stride. I bet that they don’t remember the incident at all. Or maybe – maybe – if someone mentioned it now they would have some recollection of it. Heck, I hadn’t thought about this for 30+ years; I’m not sure if Michelle even really remembers this. I mean, we’ve all done some really stupid things.

Now, as I look at my pandemic kiddos who are causing chaos in our classrooms, I have to shake my head. I’m not saying that this year isn’t a wild one – it is wild. I may not bring the thumbtacks back out before Christmas, and I’m not sure I’ll ever trust this group with Sharpies. And yet, when I’m not in the middle of it, when I’ve blinked back the tears of exhaustion and the vice principal has, again, reassured me that this is happening in all of the classes – after all of that, I realize that I had to bite my lip to stop myself from laughing about the pencils tied into the braids. And the kids aren’t the only ones who’ve slipped up on the cursing once or twice; I mean, I’ve been stuck at home during a pandemic, too. I’m pretty sure that the spitballs will dry up over time, and I have a feeling that some of the kids who can’t stay seated for more than about 30 seconds may turn out to be school leaders in a few years. Heck, maybe they’ll even be teachers someday – Michelle is and so am I. After all, pandemic or no pandemic, adolescence is always a little chaotic, right? Deep breaths, a little laughter, and a long-range view are going to help.

Many thanks to http://www.twowritingteachers.org for hosting this space.

100 words

He has written 100 words.

“100!” He  puts down his pencil. “Done.”

“Not done,” I say. 

He glares. He wrote 100 words. Mostly about a dog bite. Some about a broken arm. He added the broken arm because he didn’t have 100 words about the bite.

I talk about telling a story, about narrative arc, about sensory detail and dialogue. 

Done done done. “You said 100 words.” He plays tic-tac-toe with his friend.

But… what about that dog, that bite. Was he big? Did it hurt?

He waits. I wait. Two days. Then he picks up his pencil and writes.

(Today’s exit ticket was “one thing you learned”. His response: “I’m not a bad writer even though I thought I was.”)

Well, I asked…

By the last few minutes of class on the Thursday of the first full week of school, I was losing my voice and, occasionally, my patience – and I was trying to disguise both. My brand new grade 9 students were, ahem, perhaps not as prepared for high school as students in other years – and I’m not talking about academics.

I expected this, of course. They’ve been in pandemic schooling, such as it was, for a year and a half. They haven’t been in a physical school building since April. During that same time, I watched my own child, only one year younger than the motley group in front of me, try to “multitask” by playing video games during particularly dull social studies lessons and attempt to learn while sprawling & squirming in a beanbag. I know that on-line school and in person are different beasts. But it’s September and we’re back in person and the pandemic continues, so we’ve put a bunch of 14-year-olds into classes that last two and a half hours each. Even if their teachers give them a 15 minute break during the class before mine, they still don’t get much motion. They are not prepared for this.

On Thursday, I stood in front of them as they popped out of their seats, asked to use the restroom, snuck out their phones, played tic-tac-toe during writing time and talked during instruction. Behind my mask, I bit my lower lip to hide a smile, but I knew that the chaos needed to be tamed – at least a little – before we could learn. So I asked what they needed.

“More time outside!”
“More free time!”
“Time to use our phones!
“Time to talk to our friends!”

Time time time – of course they wanted the thing I felt the least inclined to give. Time in class is too precious to waste. I harumphed. I definitely said, “Well, I’ll think about it” in the annoying way that adults say they’ll think about something when they mean “I’ll say no tomorrow.”

And then a strange thing happened: I thought about it. Thursday evening, I kept picturing S waving his hand in the air or K up and out of his seat again. I saw M sliding her phone out of the desk, eyeing me to see if I was watching. I thought about Matthew Kay’s book Not Light, But Fire and his suggestion that teachers “burn five minutes” at the beginning of class for chatting and getting to know students and their concerns. I thought of Cornelius Minor’s We Got This, which I’m rereading, and his insistence that listening is teachers’ superpower. I know that true listening means both hearing what the students are saying and responding to it by making changes in the classroom.

As I sat in front of the computer, revising Friday’s lesson plan to include the myriad things that we had not gotten to on Thursday, the students’ communication – spoken and unspoken – ran through my head. They were going to take the time they needed whether I “gave” it to them or not. They had trusted me enough to share what they thought would help them learn. My job was to listen.

I looked at the lesson plan again and added the word “apologize” to the top.

Friday, I started by telling them that I was sorry I hadn’t listened carefully the day before. I told them that it took me a while, but I had heard them, and I showed them where I had built in outdoor time, chat time & phone time. I wish I could tell you that they magically settled into their desks and learned, but they didn’t. I still ended up confiscating pushpins (no, you cannot use them to poke your friends) and telling one student that he simply had to find a way to stop wandering the room. Nevertheless, they know I heard them. I suspect that things will get better… maybe next week.

The day before the day before

It’s almost five o’clock on Tuesday evening. I am sitting at a student desk in the front of my classroom because, as it turns out, that’s where the plug is. While I know this means I will probably need to rearrange my classroom tomorrow, that’s ok. I like this view: I can see all of my bookshelves, full and mostly organized – the result of hours and hours of work. Truly, it’s not nearly enough books, but I’ve collected them by hook and by crook – a few dollars here, a used book there, an occasional email plea – so I’m please with how many I have. To walk into this room is to know we read here.

The small classroom window to my right is open and, because the door to my left is ajar, I can feel a gentle air current that’s slightly at odds with the rhythmic sound of basketballs on the court outside. A community court, I think, it has been busy all day but now the grunts and laughter seem louder because the school is quieter. I know that this quiet is telling me to go home, and I will. I will. I will.

I look up again. The bulletin boards are still largely bare and the black space stares at me, reminding me of things to come. I haven’t yet put up my posters – that’s for tomorrow. I don’t have too many and they’re not too big, but I like the pop of colour they bring and I value the welcoming words on each one. I know, too, that I must leave these boards empty for now so that my students can make this space their own. Soon they will be here and their work will fill our spaces. Soon, the room will not be mine, but ours. I wonder what it will look like? I wonder who will be in this space? I look up again, taking it in, trying to be in the moment and failing.

I am not in this moment – the moment of the books and the breeze and the basketball and the blank bulletin boards. My poor system is still settling from the three fire alarms today – all accidental, all forcing us outside, forcing us to be in the now when we are desperately trying to prepare for the future, for Thursday when the students arrive.

I am back there, under the tree during a fire alarm, having an impromptu department meeting to discuss class assignments. I am in the hallways, trying to learn everyone’s names, realizing again and again the importance of faces that I cannot see. And I am already in the bookroom again, tomorrow, shelving one final box of books. I am already imagining where I will place the posters that are now on the desk in front of me. If it’s here, can they read it? Where will they sit? Who will take comfort in or find courage from these words? Who will they be, these students? Who are they now, in their homes, at their jobs, maybe on the basketball court, bouncing, bouncing and loving these last hours of summer?

Whoever they are, I hope they know that these moments right before the classroom fills, these moments are full of trembling anticipation for me, their teacher, too. Today I am in the past and in the future. Thursday – Thursday! – I will be in the moment and we will begin a new school year and the mysterious alchemy of learning and loving learning will start to work and then… magic.

One more deep breath. Now to close the windows, stop the breeze and go home.

Nervous Excitement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Joy?”
Yes, and laughter.

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

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

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

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

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.

Words can never hurt me #SOL21 27/31

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

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

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

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

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

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


“And no one said anything?”

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was excellent.

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

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

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

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

Done #SOL21 25/31

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

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

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

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

I only just learned their names.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tiny wins #SOL21 22/31

I probably should have called in last night, but I was honestly hoping I wouldn’t have to, even though both my partner and my eldest child were complaining of a sore throat or sniffles or the ever-dreaded “feeling off” as we went to bed last night. Public Health’s rules state that if you have a symptom, you stay home & get tested. Sometimes this feels pretty silly to me – we’ve been home several times for things that are clearly not Covid – but nine schools in our area have “open outbreaks” (meaning someone is still sick) and the variants are clearly here, so when the 12-year-old rolled over and sort of moaned at me this morning, I knew we’d all be staying at home.

Oh, that’s the other rule: if one person has symptoms, they have to get tested & the whole family stays home until the results come back negative. This Spring we’ve had a lot of in-the-house family time. Sigh.

Now, I haven’t used this blog to say a lot of good things about pandemic teaching this year. In fact, I’ve been pretty grumpy about the whole thing. I feel rushed & disconnected & over-connected & pulled in too many different directions to be effective. I could go on. But today I found myself grateful for some of the pandemic changes. Unexpected.

First, I convinced (coerced?) the 10-year-old to read with me in French. This is nothing short of miraculous. We made it through two chapters of Mon Hamster est un Détective before I had to be “in class.” Because I can see his Google classroom, I knew to have him work on math and an outline for his persuasive essay. (He’s pushing for three-day weekends – prescient.) Then, right before my own class started, I made a second pot of tea and then settled in at the kitchen island. Yes! I was able to teach a full class even though I wasn’t physically in the school. My students could see my unmasked face (finally!) and I got to see what it’s like to experience the classroom virtually. Even better, my “sick” child was “able” to do the math test he was missing while we were at home. (I’m not sure he counts this as a good thing.) The teacher simply sent it to him & I supervised.

I know there are downsides to all of this. I don’t think that anyone should teach or study when they are unwell, and I’m *really* going to miss snow days (well, around here that’s “bus cancellation days” because we almost never cancel for snow), but today felt like a series of tiny wins. Not bad for a Monday.

Shop talk #SOL21 17/31

“You know what I think they need to be teaching?”

I do not, in fact, know what he thinks, but I keep my head still and say nothing.

“They need to be teaching kids, you know, how to invest and how to balance your checkbook.”

These, I think, are wildly different skills, but ok. Sure. Good things to teach. I risk a slight nod of my head.

Thus encouraged, he continues, “And kids should have to take Phys Ed right through grade 12. When I was in high school it was only grade 9, but that’s not enough. They need to learn to be active.” I continue to listen attentively. “And then, if they taught, you know, how to cook and, like, nutrition. That would be perfect. I mean, think of how much that would save our society on health care.”

He has more ideas, but at this point I am distracted by two things. First, I’m imagining the absolute chaos that would come from trying to install kitchens in every school. Didn’t we just finish taking those out? How much would this cost? And I’m already down a rabbit hole thinking about allergies & religious food accommodations, not to mention the kids who are vegetarian, vegan or… the possibilities are endless. Maybe we could have a vegan class? Or a celiac class? How would that work? What could we teach them to cook? Who would teach these courses? And what of the the gym space for all that Phys Ed? We would need a lot of gym space… Second, I am distracted because he is scraping the plaque off my teeth with a very sharp tool – and he is still talking.

When he pauses both activities, I tell him that the Ministry of Education added financial literacy to the math curriculum this year. He is delighted. “In what grades?” he wants to know. Um… all? at least through grade 8? I don’t know – I’m an English teacher for Heaven’s sake. Will his grade 7 son learn financial literacy during this school year? I wait for a pause in the scraping and gently remind him that we are teaching in a pandemic. He has chosen to have his children completely virtual. The teachers didn’t even get the new curriculum until the end of June. In a pandemic. With no PD. Maybe he could go gentle on his expectations for this year? He agrees that this seems reasonable.

He’s using the floss now and talking about the housing market. Safer topic for me, and I let my mind wander again as I consider just how much people expect of teachers. This hygienist is, I suspect, a really good father. He loves his children and wants the best for them. But… wow… school has become so much more than reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Clearly, he believes that we should be educating the whole child; so do I, though I think we mean it in different ways.

I think about all the students I have taught this year, children I have never seen without a mask on; children I have never sat with, shoulder-to-shoulder, to talk about their writing or discuss a book. I imagine the fun of taking them outside, of cooking with them… I’d let someone else teach the financial literacy part… we could go camping…

But then I’m back in the dentist’s chair and I’m an English teacher and it’s still a pandemic. At least my teeth are clean.

While you’re waiting on someone to clean your teeth, you could write a slice in your head & then publish it with the generous community at www.twowritingteachers.org