“I am John.”

One of the things on my summer to-do list was to go through the countless boxes of paper and files that I had accumulated over the years: from university courses, various classrooms, and three separate offices. I ended up with five blue bags full of shredding and many other boxes to give away or recycle.

During this process, I came upon a piece of writing from a student that I mention in my first book. ‘John’ was the self-proclaimed outcast in our classroom. It was a complicated situation rooted in years of interactions with his peers. In the book I explain how one October day freewriting enabled John to find a tentative entry point into our classroom community.

The piece of writing I came across recently echoed the same sentiments – a need for belonging and acceptance – as the freewriting I referred to in my book. This time the prompt was “I am…”

“I am ‘John’, the one who always gets bugged in our class…”

“People bug me and they never stop… if they can, that would make me surprised. But they can never do that. Don’t try to ask.”

I am not sure if I noticed it at the time, but reading it now, I notice that he begins with his name. “I am John.” Perhaps he was trying to reclaim his identity and redefine himself through his writing.

Before freewriting, John did not voice his frustration or sadness in appropriate ways but instead in ways that simply reinforced the stereotypes around him. Yelling. Teasing. Crying. Flailing his arms. Acting out. Insulting others.

As we begin the school year, I am thinking about how important it is to set the tone for the year… to help kids like John find their place… to create a safe space for students to take risks and explore their identities… to create a genuine community of learners.

I am thankful to John for the unexpected reminder.

Summer Writing

I’m writing outside today. My dog lies on the steps a few feet away intently watching the squirrel at the bird feeder. There are at least a dozen sparrows in the same tree as the squirrel. They were at the feeder first when I filled it a few hours ago. Now they sit watching the squirrel devour their lunch. There are butterflies dancing around me, too.

Ah, summer writing. Am I working? Sure am. But how wonderful to be surrounded by nature, taken out of my writing now and then, to watch the antics of the birds, the squirrel, or my pooch.

Not all of my work can take place on my deck. But today, I am thankful that this work – the work on my novel – can. I will savour this feeling and revisit it a few months from now when the cold and snow return…

Words Matter

I’ll admit that I have been biting my tongue so to speak: avoiding voicing my anger and frustration, not wanting to wade into a political arena. But the events of this weekend are too much.

I keep thinking: if he were a school boy, if he were a child in our schools, he would be reprimanded, suspended, expelled even. And if he were a teacher or principal in our schools, he would be fired. His hate speech, intolerant views, and racist rhetoric would not be allowed.

Those of you who know me, know how much I believe in the power of words. Words do matter. As this site claims by its very name: words change worlds. Sadly, we can’t change his words but we can use ours to be the alternate voice. To be a voice of hope and love. To bridge the divides created by others. To be inclusive and supportive. To stand up for what we believe in.

I live in Canada. He is not my leader. And yet I feel the need to be a part of this conversation. Words matter.

Art Transforms

Art, oh joyous art! Where would I be without you in my life?

Art can transform my mood, carry me to another time or place, and provoke introspection. I know I’m not alone in these sentiments.

Last weekend I saw an exhibit at the Royal Alberta Museum which includes the artwork of Alex Janvier. Perhaps in Edmonton he is best known for the 45-foot diameter circular mosaic floor art in Rogers Place. But the exhibit at RAM includes a video in which he speaks of his experiences within residential schools. Janvier credits art as his only escape from the fear and losses he faced as a child. Stripped of his language and culture, he took refuge in the time spent drawing and painting.

On the same day I saw that exhibit, I also saw Ring of Fire at the Citadel. One of the lyrics of a Johnny Cash song – “singing seems to help a troubled soul” – reminded me of the sentiments expressed by Janvier: art as solace and escape.

Through the experience of art, we may find comfort, shift moods, or be challenged into a new way of thinking. Through the creation of art, we may learn to cope with reality, express ourselves, and tell our stories. The beauty is there is room in our world for each of these stories. Each can enrich our world. No two of us have the same story to express and no two of us will express our stories in precisely the same way.

Art, of course, comes in many forms: painting, sculpture, dance, music, literature, film, and photography to name a few. Regardless of form, its power is the same.

Writing is my art. I write to reflect and refine my thinking. I write to inform. I write to express frustration and uncover truth. Perhaps August Rodin said it best when it comes to art: “The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live.”

Art transforms.

Oprah: The Path Made Clear

Last Thursday, I heard Oprah speak at Rogers Place. The topic: The Path Made Clear: Discovering Your Life’s Direction and Purpose echoing the title of her new book.

There’s no denying that Oprah is intelligent, funny, and inspiring. She is passionate about her own authentic purpose and encourages others to discover their own. How?

She talks about listening to our whispers: those inner thoughts revealing what is right for us in our lives. It doesn’t matter our circumstances, our previous experiences, our age, or status in life, we all have choices to make and whispers to guide us.

Many of her words resonated with me. I have chosen a few to share today: “Turn your wounds into wisdom.” “You are responsible for your life.” “Where there is no struggle, there is no strength.” “You become what you believe.”

Oprah strives to empower others. Isn’t that our role as teachers, too?

Nuggets of Wisdom

I love theatre. It follows then that I enjoy watching the Tony Awards to stay up-to-date on the latest and greatest Broadway shows. Last Sunday, Andre De Shields (who won Best Performance for a Leading Actor for his work in Hadestown) gave the following advice during his acceptance speech:

“1. Surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming. 2. Slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be. 3. The top of one mountain is the bottom of the next so keep climbing.”

His words got me thinking: Isn’t this wonderful advice for our students? A wonderful example for our children?

I don’t have my own classroom these days, but if I did, I think I would find a way to post these three nuggets of wisdom. To discuss the profound meaning in each. To use each of them as inspiration for writing and reflection.

Yes, we have the important role of teaching science and social studies, math and language arts, physical education and the fine arts. But we also have an opportunity for so much more.

Which nuggets of wisdom do you choose to instill in your students?

We Do What We Can

Recently, I saw this quote on Facebook: “Nine times out of 10, the story behind the misbehavior won’t make you angry, it will break your heart.” Annette Breaux

As an administrator, an expected part of the job is dealing with discipline issues as they arise. When I was in that role, I saw it as my job to dig a little, to discover the why behind the behaviour. And as the quote above indicates, very often, the why is heartbreaking.

For many of these same students, the end of the school year brings with it anxiety. Some dread two months at home. For some, school is safety and stability.

As the school year comes to a close, consider what you might equip these students with to help them through the summer: a few extra words of encouragement, a good book or two, or even a journal (with a reassuring note and quote within).

One of my favourite quotes to share with students: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” A. A. Milne

These gestures might not seem significant, but we just don’t know the impact they may have…

Writing Groups

Last week my mom and I exchanged our current manuscripts. The intent? To garner feedback which will ultimately improve our work. When we allow someone to read our work in progress, their fresh eyes notice different things and come to the writing with a different perspective.

To emulate this experience in my classroom, I establish writing groups with my students. What are they? Very simply, small groups of students (ideally four per group) who share their writing and provide feedback to each other. Students as young as grade one learn to comment on the craft of their fellow writers!

Although this concept of sharing effective feedback is difficult for students at first, once they learn how to provide (and receive) feedback, the literate conversations that occur can be somewhat surprising to teachers who have not witnessed them before.

How do we teach our students to give feedback? The mini-lessons we teach on specific skills become the basis for the conversations within the writing groups. It doesn’t matter if the mini-lesson is on word choice, dialogue, or a particular plot pattern, whatever it is, we teach our students to notice and comment on this skill or strategy within the writing.

Still skeptical? Watch this video of Austin’s Butterfly to witness the power of student feedback. The video may be about a scientific drawing, but the same premise applies!

Student Voice

Recently, I overheard a teacher talking about that elusive element of the rubric: voice. “I have no idea how to teach it.” I don’t think she’s alone in this sentiment.

In our classrooms, personalities shine through. Even when I’m guest teaching in a classroom for a short time, individual personalities begin to reveal themselves. The question then becomes, how do we get these personalities to shine through on paper?

If we watch a typical class of students write, they tend to write slowly, word by word, trying to make each word and idea perfect as they go. For most students, there is no room for creativity or personality within this process.

Voice tend to emerge when students do not worry about or overthink their writing. In the spirit of Peter Elbow, I remind students to shut off the critical thinking side of the brain during their initial writing time and let the creative part of the brain take over. The critical thinking brain might tell us that our words or thoughts are not good enough, or that we aren’t using perfect spelling or grammar. Therefore, during our initial writing time, the critical thinking part of our brain tends to get in the way, stifling creativity and preventing student voice from emerging.

But when we encourage our students to just write, freely, no concern for perfection, personalities have a way of weaselling their way into the writing. And of course, once they have words on paper, we can teach our students to turn their critical thinking brains back on to engage in the processes of revision and editing.

But, consider this, how do we tell students to go back and add ‘personality’ to their writing?

A perplexing prospect…

Great Expectations

As I move from school to school in my role as language arts consultant, I meet hundreds of students in dozens of classrooms. The dynamics within the classrooms are different; student experiences and family situations are different; school philosophies and focuses are sometimes different, too. And yet… all students – despite the circumstances – benefit from high expectations.

Now, I know this. It’s logical. I’ve witnessed it in my own classrooms time and time again. But this idea has been reinforced the more students that I meet.

I strive to be clear, reasonable, and sympathetic to student circumstance. But, ultimately, I expect students to engage in what we are doing and expend some energy. In a class with high expectations, we find rigour and students motivated to learn.

Great achievements are the result of great expectations.