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

Ask again #SOL21 12/31

In January, in a fit of – what? frustration? overwhelm? a desire to make someone somewhere happy? I wrote to the authors of the books my 12th graders were reading & thanked them. I explained that during yet another lockdown, yet another round of remote learning, the students were finding interest and pleasure in their novels. Then, I took a leap and invited each author to my class to talk with us, if they ever had the time. To my astonishment, Lawrence Hill, the author of The Book of Negroes (known as Someone Knows My Name in the US and Australia), The Illegal and Any Known Blood, among others, wrote back and said yes. (I wrote about this here.)

Hill’s virtual visit was a highlight of this year – heck, of many years! – not least because my students prepared well and led the entire visit by asking thoughtful questions. Hill himself was a delightful guest: he took each student seriously, writing notes as they spoke, addressing them directly by name and engaging them in thoughtful discussion. I think we all left that class feeling a little more connected, a little more like a part of a larger community of discourse.

That should have been enough. The story should be that I sent a note & something wonderful happened, but it turns out there’s more. This quarter (ugh) I have a new group of students who are reading many of the same books. I don’t quite have the nerve to ask Lawrence Hill to visit us again, but many of the students I’m teaching now know many of the students I taught last quarter, and they know he visited. I’ve also shared my decision to write & the results as an example of the power of writing – and the idea that it’s ok to fail. After all, only one author wrote back – but what would have happened if I hadn’t written at all? Consider it evidence, I told them, that writing well really can make a difference. This new group nodded politely, but between the masks and the screens, I couldn’t tell if they believed me. Too often what they hear is that the teacher’s words matter, not theirs.

This week, they’ve been working on understanding the context of their novels. How does the author’s biography influence their writing? How does understanding context help a reader understand the text in a different way? Heady stuff, but after their initial nerves, many of them got deeply involved in their research. So I shouldn’t have been surprised – though I was! – when two different students mentioned that they had emailed the author of their novel. Nevermind that Lawrence Hill and Ruth Ozeki are big names with plenty of awards and whatnot, each student had a burning question and decided it was worth asking. And then did it.

As a class, we’ll get to the essay in a week, and I’m not a bit worried about it. My students have begun to see themselves as people worthy of participating in discourse, as people whose have questions worth asking. That’s really all I need to know.

(Though, it would be fun if one of them got a response.)

Come. Write. Learn. Laugh. twowritingteachers.org welcomes you!

Tritina: Fall

The more I become a teacher who writes, the more I realize how important writing is to my teaching. When I started this blog, writing expanded my ability to reflect on my teaching practice. When I wrote, I saw details more clearly. What had once been fuzzy, partly-formed thoughts or observations became more firmly fixed. I still held my ideas gently because I wanted room to grow and change, but they became more clear – kind of like dew on a spider web.

Next, writing (and especially publishing) forced me to confront the complexity of what I was asking my students to do. For the first while after I started sharing my writing, I continued to assign mostly analytical essays, but the more I wrote, the more I realized the importance of practice, of revision, and of voice. Obviously I *knew* all of those things, but I hadn’t lived them for a while. The more I wrote, the more I realized how much more space I needed to offer my students in their own writing lives. These days we write all kinds of things and I strive to offer assignments rooted in purpose and audience.

Recently, I’ve been trying my hand at poetry. For me, this feels like the ultimate writing challenge. I mean, sure, I can write a good email and tell a good story, but POETRY? That’s for *real* writers. Like any good English teacher, I have poems I love, but secretly I’ll tell you that I find some completely confounding. And yet… I teach poetry, and I *want* to teach poetry. My blogging buddy Glenda Funke said once (in a comment? a message? I can’t find it, but I remember it) that writing poetry really helped her understand it and teach it. I believed her, but I wasn’t ready to do it. And then… well, I’ve been messing around with it during the pandemic, using poetry to let myself play, let myself write badly, let myself get frustrated and work it out. I start things and abandon them, then come creeping back. I hack away at it, and I have to admit that it’s kind of fun. So, in honour of my students, who regularly share with me work that they hate, that’s half-finished, that’s outside of their comfort zone, who turn in word after word, line after line, paragraph after paragraph , I’m going to write and share poems. (Not every week – don’t get excited.)

Today, inspired (as I often am) by Ethical ELA’s monthly Open Write, I have tried a Tritina.

Fall

Mid-October and still no killing frost.
The tomatoes still strive towards red,
heedless of the Fall.

Around the vine, leaves fall
As the trees, preparing for the inevitable frost
shed yellow, orange, gold, red.

Earlier and earlier every evening the red
sun descends toward the horizon, its fall
portending what is to come: frost.

Nightly, I beg the frost to allow one more shimmer of red before white death falls.

Thank you to https://twowritingteachers.org/ for hosting this weekly blog share

Finding my joy

“Listen,” I say softly, “there are a lot of things that you can’t control right now, but there are also a lot that you CAN control. I need you to focus on what *you* can control.”

I’d swear I can hear this child nod. We pause, silent for a moment, letting this idea settle.

“Let’s make a list,” I say. “I’ll start. You can control when you take breaks. Are you taking breaks?”
“Um. Yeah, I guess.”
“So let’s start with that.”

We talk for over half an hour. I cradle the receiver to my ear and help one child take back a sense of agency, a sense that they are capable of learning even in a system that seems designed to take advantage of every weakness inherent in their learning disability. I hang up, exhausted but content. I know that the problems aren’t actually fixed – both parents and teachers are spiralling as they try to figure out how to help – but I also know that I’ve helped give this kid a little shelter from the storm. Hopefully this will be enough to allow him to find his footing, remember his strengths, and forge ahead.

This is the Special Education work I want to do. This is the work I’ve been missing at the beginning of this pandemic-infused school year. Lately, I’ve found myself remembering the words of my Spec Ed mentor from years ago: The kids always come first. The system will tell you that the paperwork comes first, but it’s wrong. Miss every deadline you need to in order to support the kids.

The last few weeks have exhausted me. I thought I was embodying my mentor’s words, but I’ve realized that, in fact, given the restrictions on seeing students and the system’s insatiable need for accountability, I have actually been putting paperwork first. Most of my phone calls have been about IEPs, not about helping. Oh, I thought I was asking about the kids, but I was actually working through a list, making sure I had checked all the boxes. I’m embarrassed to realize it, but the kids were coming second, the myriad phone calls really in service of a form.

What’s important to me are relationships and people. What’s important is listening, believing and creating space for growth. If I am going to thrive in this moment, I am going to have to find my joy – because my joy is what allows me to reach out, is what allows me to support, to help, to encourage.

I lean away from the phone and find solace in my lonely office, away from the colleagues and students. What can I control?I ask myself. Am *I* taking breaks? I stand up, stretch, don my mask, and head across the hallway to make myself a tea.

I can control how I interact with students: I will use the phone to connect with students who might not otherwise ask for help. (In fact, I am astonished by the kids who are reaching out now compared to the kids who came to the Spec Ed room before.) I will make time for long conversations when they are necessary. I will proactively reach out to students who I hear may be struggling. I will put students first.

I can control how I interact with teachers: I will use our new, complicated school day to offer a different kind of support for teachers. I can share Google classrooms with them and offer ideas for UDL when teachers ask me about this. I will offer breaks so they can breathe during these long days. I will find ways to teach that are not dependent upon having a class.

I love being a teacher. Teaching is written into my very being. I know what brings me joy. Now, even in the midst of this most unusual time, I can decide to pursue the joy available in this moment and remember that the deadlines are about systems and I am about people.

Later in the day, I learned that my student’s parent had called the principal. The storm winds continued to blow, but the parent also reported that my conversation with their son had been really helpful: “I don’t know what she said, but it’s the first time I’ve seen him smile in days.”

Ah, there’s the joy.

I’m on the phone

Photo by Alex Andrews on Pexels.com

The cellphone lights up on my desk. I glance at it: my colleague from down the hall has a question. I type in “I’m on the phone” while I continue to “mmmhmmm” my way through a conversation with a parent.

I don’t have any students assigned to me this quadmester. My colleagues are muddling their way through a convoluted teaching schedule that involves teaching one class for 225 minutes per day (plus a 75 minute at-home work period) for one week during which half the students come one day while the other half are online; then the two cohorts switch. As if that weren’t enough, teachers must deliver both synchronous and asynchronous instruction for the students at home while remaining masked and socially distant from the students in the room. Then the next week they do the same thing with a different class. And then they start again. While all of that is happening, I have been assigned to Spec Ed, and I am on the phone.

We have about 225 students at our school who have IEPs. Usually, we send forms – thorough, if impersonal – home to parents to ask for input; I would guess we average about a 25% rate of return, maybe a little more. Usually, we meet face-to-face with every student. We sit with them for five or ten minutes and look at their IEP, showing them what accommodations they have, asking what works, what needs tweaking. Usually, the Spec Ed room is full of kids coming in to pick up a Chromebook, get some extra explanation, figure out how to study more effectively. Usually, I interact with my partner, EAs, other teachers and guidance counselors every day. I squeeze in the occasional phone call and respond to email as quickly as I can, but usually my focus is on the students in front of me. Usually Spec Ed is the kind of job that asks me to juggle a knife, a fire stick and a teddy bear while standing on a beach ball. But 2020, as we all know, is not a usual year. So I am on the phone.

My partner and I are calling every family and every student about their IEP. We call on the days when the students are in the cohort that is working from home. We cross our fingers that we aren’t interrupting their parents’ workday, that we aren’t waking the student up. We leave messages, send emails and, most of all, we talk on the phone.

This is a completely different way to support students. I am simultaneously lonely and overstimulated. I find myself exhausted from listening – really listening – to the way each family and each child is experiencing our education system during this crisis. They are thoughtful about their needs, their child’s needs. They are alert to what changes have happened this year, how their students have responded, what might come next. They are hopeful and fearful and mostly they just want things to be good enough. Mostly they are hoping to muddle through. Almost always they are surprised, delighted, impressed that we are calling – as if this is entirely unexpected amidst the chaos of the school year. Most of the parents are kind. Most of the kids are upbeat. Almost everyone understands that we are part of a team that works best when we work together.

Of course, it takes time to build those teams, and right now I’m spending that time on the phone. I jot down notes as I listen, little memory jogs to help me remember what information to email teachers, when to call my administrator, when to give Guidance a heads’ up. I give out my email, my phone number again and again. I say, “don’t hesitate to call as soon as you sense a problem; this year classes are moving very quickly.” I say, “If you’ve tried to get in touch and I haven’t gotten back to you, please send me a gentle reminder. Sometimes I just get overwhelmed.”

I’m overwhelmed. I long to be in the classroom, juggling through the chaos of the class schedule created for us. I long to be reading and writing and talking with students as I try to convince them that their voice matters. I miss the physical presence of people in a room, of my colleagues and my students. I imagine that sharing their overwhelm will feel better, more present, than these voices on the other end of the phone.

But I am on the phone. And I am convinced that their voice matters. “I know this year looks different; please call or email right away if you’re struggling. We can work together to fix just about anything.” I listen for the silent nod on the other end of the line. I say goodbye. I hang up.

Then I turn to the computer and pull up another IEP. I read through the assessments, the accommodations, the transitions. I find the student’s timetable. Deep breath. I look at the student’s picture, call up a memory of the child from years past, hold tight to that connection, and then I pick up the phone. “Hello, this is Amanda Potts, calling from Canterbury High School. I’m your child’s Learning Support Teacher this year. Is this a good time to talk about their IEP?”

The cellphone lights up on my desk. I type “I’m on number 8. You?” and continue to “mmmhmmm” my way through a conversation with a parent.

Fragmented

6:30 am
Just going to try to get this written before the kids get downstairs. Don’t expect it to be my best slice, but things are *busy* these days. Nothing like taking over a class mid-semester (and supporting the two teachers who are picking up the other ones) to keep me on my toes. If I can squeeze out 10 minutes, I’m going to call this my slice because today will be full.

[The kids woke up. Breakfast. Out the door.]

10:30am
Ok, so I didn’t finish this morning. Maybe I can edit this afternoon & cobble something together. One good thing about teaching writing is that, if I write alongside them, I get a little writing time, too. This week & next we’re looking at integrating music and writing. Today’s prompt is Beethoven’s Minuet in G & they’re supposedly thinking about atmosphere. I don’t know what they’re writing, but at least m
ost of them are physically writing. Of course, some are not. Some stare, almost defiant. Two are chatting.

[Another teacher came in, looking for my advice about a student with an IEP. Turns out that IEPs don’t go away just because I picked up an extra class…]

2:10
Now’s my moment. If I slice now I can do a quick edit when I get home & up it goes. Hmm… what to write about ? Book Sale – we’ve collected used books all year long to sell at the kids’ school’s Book Sale. This weekend we sorted a boxed hundreds of books. Maybe describe the physical feeling of books – the handling of them. But easier and easier for me to give away (though not my own)! Today we took 624 books (well, more or less: we fudged the numbers a little so that they were even) to the school at 8am. We ferried them out of the gray minivan, across the street, up the steps, through the front door, and into the lobby. Pause. Into the gym and onto the stage. Box after box. Sorted and

[Another teacher came in with a question. Then the principal swang by with a question. Then the Guidance Counselor called.]

7:02pm
Here I am. I have 13 minutes until the boys come tearing into the house & we start the bedtime routine. I promised a friend I would return her call 12 minutes ago. One of the cats just yowled in the backyard (where a skunk sprayed last night). The only edits I’ve managed are to add the interruptions.

Today I’m fragmented. Reflection is hard to come by. Story is escaping me and even the details slip away. I need to get my head wrapped around this new course, need to get to know my students, calm their parents, help my sick colleague, pay attention to the students I already love, play with my own boys, laugh with my husband… I need to feed the cats, make the lunches, wash the dishes. All these little pieces of my life & I’m just going to have to enjoy them as they go by because that’s all I’m going to get right now.

Somebody in some blog somewhere [Update – this is the post I was thinking of] recently posted about kintsugi, the ancient Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold. What I’m realizing as I write is that kintsugi depends on having something that is broken, something that is fragmented. I bet the literature on kintsugi doesn’t tell about the moment the vase slipped from her hands, the way the pot hit the hard earth, how she wept when she saw the mess, how she had to take a deep breath, remind herself that the fragments themselves held beauty. No one talks about the hope she mustered as she gathered the shards and put them carefully into a safe place, fingers crossed that someday there would be gold – or words, or love – enough to create beauty from the fragments. She just has to wait.

7:15 – the door just opened (they really are good kids). I’m going to post without the Slice of Life picture or anything. And no editing. Deep breath – here it goes. Maybe I’ll edit and add the picture later.

 

And then… poetry lessons go awry

After a bit of a slow start in Grade 10 English, the poetry unit has been going gangbusters. All my plans were working! Students were engaged! They were having fun! They were playing with language, finding words, generating metaphors! I was a great teacher! And then…

Yesterday started well. We used Jabberwocky to think about how sounds create images. We listened, added images, read on our own, listened to a different interpretation, argued for our favourite, tried to “translate” it, read out loud, did readers’ theatre. The classroom was abuzz. And then… I decided to “let” the class listen to Poe’s The Raven. I had a good version with a creepy voice, the words scrolling past, the whole thing. Except that I overestimated my students’ attention span. Even with the lights out & the scene set, they got bored. Quickly. I should have pulled the plug, but I hesitated and the class ended on a decidedly dull note. Note to self: The Raven is too hard and too long for this group to listen to without a better introduction.

Today I wanted to get back to our poetry buzz. I prepped The Bells as an attempt to rehabilitate Poe after yesterday. I found multiple videos, including songs and recitations with images, that illustrated various tones. The plan was to listen, notice, discuss, then look at other poems where sound takes centre stage. I was completely ready, and then… as the students walked in, one of the social leaders said, quite loudly, “Please tell me we aren’t doing poetry again today.” Another one of my touchstone students showed up late and dragging. The Bells was not going to work. I needed something quick & engaging.

So instead of The Bells we worked with Gwendolyn Brooks’ We Real Cool. Students listened to two versions and were able to hear how enjambment can create rhythm, sound and meaning. They heard Brooks read and said it sounded like jazz. They noticed the alliteration, the “hidden” rhymes, the images and more. Great, but the dang class is 75 minutes long. We needed more and my original plans were out the window. So I read them Gertrude Stein’s Susie Asado.

Now, you might think that Stein is an unusual choice for a motley crew of Grade 10 reluctant readers, but hearing a poem where the sounds count more than the words usually completely fascinates students. This group was no different. We talked about flamenco dancing. (I wasn’t quick enough to find a video; I was teaching on the fly at this point.) We talked about the sounds words make. We talked about why Stein might write like this. It was great, and then…I moved too fast. I asked them to choose a person and try to write a few lines about them using the sounds of words rather than the meaning.

Here’s what I did not do:
1. provide more than one mentor text
2. help students sufficiently analyze the mentor text I did provide
3. offer written instructions to supplement my oral instructions
4. brainstorm ways that onomatopoeia is different from what Stein is doing
5. break the task down into chunks that they could approach
6. provide anywhere near enough structure

I could kick myself. My darling students tried – they really did – but I had set them up for failure. Only a few got anywhere near something they liked. Most were completely  overwhelmed, so they got off topic, used the bathroom (my rule of thumb: once the third student asks for a bathroom break, that lesson is done), put their head on the desk… GAH! It’s a good assignment, I swear it is, but I forgot to take into account what these learners need.

And then… I sent prayers of thanks up that I was prepped a little ahead. I pulled out a handout about Juxtaposition from Karen Benke’s book Rip the Page(Thank goodness for Elisabeth Ellington and Catherine Flynn writing about this recently.) At last: a written assignment, concrete, with clear directions. Something they could do with some success.  I guided them through it, and then… class ended before we could share.

I was feeling like a bit of a failure, but truthfully, I think we’re ok. I’ve stolen from tomorrow’s assignment, and the exercise wasn’t quite as good without the lead-up I’d planned to use, but it was good enough. In writing about these two days, I’ve realized that I haven’t ruined everything – yet – but I am still nervous about tomorrow. If things go awry again, the unit may be done for: my students preconceptions about poetry (and English) are pretty tightly held; they will happily revert to their ingrained habit of hating it. And I want them to try writing poems on their own. They’ve seen loads of mentor texts now, written lots of bits and bobs; it’s time. But generating language is hard, and now I’m nervous.

Anyone out there in the blogosphere have suggestions?