A Learning Journey

Last week, a teacher sent me a ‘thank-you-for-taking-a-chance-on-me’ kind of message. It’s been five or six years since we’ve worked together and he commented on how much he has changed as a teacher since his first experiences in the classroom.

When I think back to my first years in this profession, I shudder. I wouldn’t say that I was ineffective but I was certainly not as effective as I am now. In many ways, the first few years of a teacher’s classroom life could be considered survival.

Teaching is complicated, challenging, and complex. We must learn how to interact with students, how to engage them, how to plan effectively, and bring that plan to life during instruction. We must learn to monitor and assess student understanding and provide effective feedback. We must learn how to accommodate the wide range of academic, social, and emotional needs in our classrooms. We must learn how to communicate with parents: parents of all backgrounds, perspectives, and temperaments. We must also learn to be supportive and sensitive to the many life experiences and challenging circumstances so many of our students face.

So yes, teaching is complex; it is also exhilarating, exciting, and wonderfully rewarding. We cannot expect anyone to walk into the classroom during their first years and immediately be able to juggle the many balls in the air trying new tricks all the while.

Teaching is a journey. The best teachers learn from those around them, take time to reflect, make adjustments to their practice, and understand that their own learning is never finished.

Taking a chance on a new teacher – necessary! We’ve all been there, after all.

Breaking Barriers

Last night we saw The Tempest at the Citadel Theatre. This was not a typical Shakespearean experience, however. In addition to the rain through much of the performance and the inclusion of lines from other plays, the dialogue was both signed and spoken by a combination of deaf and hearing actors. The play was not signed at the side of the stage as you may have seen in other circumstances. No, the American Sign Language was very much a part of the play itself.

Watching these actors break through barriers with each other and with the audience got me thinking about the students in our classrooms. Some don’t have full access to our teaching because of a language barrier, a disability, or even the challenges presented by the printed word.

How can we try to understand the limitations they feel and obstacles they face? What can we do to support them on their learning journeys?

Sometimes the accommodations are significant. But often, the changes aren’t complicated and the adjustments, fairly minor. And yet, what a difference for our students. When we are intentional about providing supports for our students who may fall outside the norm, all students benefit. Universal design at its best.

A Collision of Words

Sometimes the books I read back to back forge surprising connections. Each book may be enjoyable and profound on its own, but read one after the other they bring even more richness and unexpected insight.

Yesterday, in bed with the flu, I finished Forgiveness: A Gift from My Grandparents by Mark Sakamoto and then read Hope Nation: YA Authors Share Personal Moments of Inspiration edited by Rose Brock. Today, I let the voices of others demonstrate this awesome collision of words. In the spirit of a found poem, here is a found post… (To experience the newfound relationship between the words, I encourage you to read it the first time through without reading the sources. With the exception of the first quotation from Forgiveness, the others are all from Hope Nation.)

“My grandparents bore witness to the worst in humanity. Yet they also managed to illuminate the finest in humanity. ” Mark Sakamoto, p. 237

“Nothing forces people to confront the humanity of others like engaging with their stories.” Jeff Zentner, p. 92

“To know a person’s story is inevitably to understand their humanity and feel a loving kinship with them, no matter how different the two of you may seem at first.” David Levithan, p. 5, 6

“…I know that stories are like fire. They give us light. They give us warmth. They burn things down so that new, green things can grow up and replace them.” Jeff Zentner, p. 96

“…what fascinated me was the way certain sentences sounded together, the way they could be arranged into symphonies, the way they awoke emotions in me that I couldn’t rationalize.” Romina Garber, p. 195

“Within the pages of those books, many of us found solace. Empowerment. Courage to dream.” Nic Stone, p. 236

“We are not being silent, we are not sitting down, we are not allowing hatred to win.” Angie Thomas, p. 67

“Feel hope, my friend, whatever that means to you. Embrace it, devour it, foster it, make it grow.” James Dashner, p. 268

“You are not alone.” Libba Bray, p. 58

“You are great. You are magnificent. You are infinitely important to this world and to the people who come across your path. You are worthy of great things. You are capable of changing as many lives as you so choose, including your own, for the better.” James Dashner, p. 267

“Be the best individual you can be.” Aisha Saeed, p. 216

“You give me hope.” Angie Thomas, p. 67

“How profound is that?” Howard Bryant, p. 181

Small Moments of Happiness

One year ago on Yonge Street, a van plowed into unsuspecting pedestrians: killing ten and injuring many others. This act of violence altered the sense of security and safety on the streets of Toronto. The family of one of the victims is attempting to counter the emotion generated by this tragedy through the donation of a piano: to counter hate with love through spontaneous moments of music, of healing, of happiness.

The piano is not new, not in perfect condition, not even in tune. And yet, perhaps this is exactly what the situation calls for: an instrument with its own past and imperfections.

When I think about tragic circumstances, I become more keenly aware of the happiness within a moment. This weekend brought many moments of happiness. Church on Easter Sunday was especially joyful with my niece by my side leaning in and mimicking my every move. Easter dinner was a busy, bustling houseful of kids and adults, never a quiet moment. A scavenger hunt sent the kids – big and little – running around the house, up and down, in and out. The patio furniture out of storage, I sat on our deck for the first time this year, reading a book and enjoying the sun. A token left at the car wash, seemingly on purpose, made the satisfying task of washing a filthy car, even more satisfying.

There are small moments of happiness within each day… but really, their size doesn’t matter at all.

Writing as Thinking

I recently gave an inservice with a focus on writing as a form of thinking. Now this is nothing new. I often think through my words on a page and encourage my students to do the same. Sometimes I know what I’m going to write about when I begin but often my writing takes me to unexpected places. The same is true for students. On many occasions I have watched students read over their freewriting and then exclaim, “I didn’t know I thought that!”

The other day while writing in my journal, I found myself thinking about – writing about – my grandma. I didn’t realize she was on my mind and then there she was in my writing. I smiled as I wrote about her passion and strength, her stubbornness and sense of humour, her fierce love for family and her playful antics. Even since her death in June of 2016, her presence in my life continues to be strong. She grounds me.

I hadn’t expected to find her within the pages of my journal that day, but her appearance was a wonderful surprise.

A Desire to Learn

One of my goals when teaching is to generate both creative energy and intellectual rigour. And really, most of our students have a desire to learn: they want to be challenged and engaged.

Last week I watched as students from difficult circumstances, students dealing with the sometimes harsh realities of life, became excited at the challenges set before them. At the end of a lesson in another school, a student asked, “I want to start this on the bus on my way home!”

Mission accomplished: students excited to learn.

Devotion to Students

Spring break is a reprieve from the routine of work. Whether it means an opportunity to check items off the to-do list, a get-away, or simply some down time, Spring Break should be just as the name implies: a break.

As we venture back into our classrooms tomorrow – hopefully a little more rested than ten days ago – let us remember the reason we are in this profession: our students! They deserve respect, enthusiasm, and devotion from us, their teachers.

On a broader scale, we want our government to have the same devotion to students. In Alberta, we are approaching a provincial election; the ideas about education shared by some candidates concern me as they do not seem to have our students at the centre of policy. The other day, when I spoke to someone in another province, she shared her frustration with their current government and the impact they’ve had on education; she heeded a warning to those of us in Alberta.

It was a good reminder: our voices matter. Be sure to vote!

More than simply entertainment…

As circumstance would have it, I have seen a wide variety of performances over the last ten days – both children and adults, amateur and professional – in combinations of dance, song, and various genres of music.

Regardless of the age, the type of performance, or even the venue, the common threads were the dedication and discipline that went into each of the performances: the hours of preparation and practice, all to entertain an audience.

But can dance, song, and music be more than pure entertainment?

Last Sunday I was fortunate to see Come From Away: the broadway musical about 9-11 and the days that followed in Gander, Newfoundland. It was here that 38 planes were grounded and nearly 7000 people were stranded when the airspace was shut down. You wouldn’t think you could make a musical on a topic so solemn, so tragic. You wouldn’t think you would find yourself smiling, and even laughing, during a performance such as this. And yet…

Come From Away showcases the good of humankind. During the days following 9-11, the people of Gander welcomed and embraced those affected by this event that rocked the world. The residents of this community put their own grief on hold in order to meet the immediate needs of those on this unexpected detour. In doing so, profound goodness was uncovered and unlikely friendships were forged in the face of catastrophe.

So… can dance, song, and music be more than pure entertainment? Most definitely. This performance inspired and informed, moved and motivated. Ultimately, this performance celebrates the goodness and hope in our world.

Within Our Control

Many years ago, I was filmed while I taught a variety of lessons. These videos were for no one other than me: a tool enabling me to watch, observe, and reflect on my own practice.

Although nerve-racking, it was fascinating to observe myself in this way; I became much more aware of my tendencies. I remember noticing that there were words I repeated unnecessarily. I also noticed that I often chose the same few students to respond to my questions and that my wait time generally wasn’t long enough. This experience created an opportunity to improve my craft.

As a positive reflection, I remember being surprised by my enthusiasm and energy. I was quite animated with my students and I watched how their enthusiasm and energy mirrored my own.

Since then, I have noticed this tendency in other classrooms as well. Teachers enthusiastic about teaching tend to create students enthusiastic about learning. Teachers who dwell on the negative unintentionally invite more negative behaviour. Teachers who remain calm encourage the same in their students.

We cannot control which students are in our classrooms. And of course, there will always be students whose behaviour is more challenging than the norm. We can choose to be negative, frustrated, and apathetic. Or, we can choose to be positive, enthusiastic, and calm. Our energy and demeanour in the classroom most certainly affects the way our students feel.

The choice is yours. As Carl Buechner once said, “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

Imagine

As I walked my dog this weekend, for the first time in a long while, we weren’t hurried to get back home because of temperature. We walked considerably further, enjoyed the warmer temperatures, and welcomed both the drip-drip-dripping and the puddles indicating the beginning of a large melt.

Imagine that you arrived in Canada in November or December for the first time. What then would you know of our weather? Only cold and snow. And this year, extremely cold and a lot of snow! Imagine. You wouldn’t know what our city or country looks like without it. You may not believe that there is grass underneath that snow, that flowers bloom, and our trees really do grow leaves.

Yes, we have a ways to go between the mounds of snow and the green grass. But it’s coming… it always does.