Sunday, August 13, 2017

Fishing Stories

I have been reading. A lot. The more I read, though, the less I seem to understand anything at all. I’m trying to find the answer to how to teach. I don’t mean the technical part. After twenty odd years, I’m confident I can plan a lesson, organize a classroom, adapt, modify, assess, intervene, revise. I’m always learning, of course, but I’m “on my way,” as a teacher might say. What I mean, though, is the rest of teaching, the part that no one seems to talk about.

I’m not even sure I can put it into words. It’s the day-to-day and moment-to-moment work of teaching. It’s how to be present even when you are tired or sad, how to stay calm and ready to hear the children even when you are frustrated or hot or hungry, how to keep trying to help a child who pushes you away at every opportunity, who hurts the other children, who sometimes weeps uncontrollably in the cloakroom. It’s the decisions day-to-day and moment-to-moment of teaching – what to teach these children before you (not the ones you planned for), how to teach them in this moment for this lesson (should I begin with a pretest? an anticipation guide? paired conversations? a video?), when to keep pushing forward even when the children seem lost or bored, when to stop and let them run or change directions entirely to begin again differently. It’s all the things that need to be created in the moment, moments that can’t be planned for or polished up.  It’s finding space to think about this part of teaching in a day filled with doing and assessing, planning, organizing, organizing, organizing to begin again the next day.

My brother used to send me pithy quotes like this one: whatever you focus on is what you get. I’m beginning to wonder if what I want to focus on can’t be found in books. Perhaps all this reading is only pointing me in the wrong direction. How, after all, can we capture in words what exists only in a moment, in this moment, when Janice looks at me with a question in her eyes and the light of hope shining behind. And the moment passes.

What’s funny, though, is that it is the moments, in the end, that last, that we remember, that inspire or discourage us, that stay with us, like the last conversation I had with my brother thirteen years ago. I was telling him fishing stories from my trip to Haida Gwaii. He was laughing. Save some for later, he said. Tell them to me when you get here.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Summer Slow

If you are a teacher, you know about the summer list. Not only are you going to lounge at the beach and read novels, hang out with friends and family, take trips to here or there, and binge-watch that series from Netflix everyone is raving about, but you are also going to clean the kitchen cupboards, organize the laundry room, sort through your drawers to get rid of all the clothes you no longer wear, plan an amazing unit for school start-up, collect math games, and redesign your classroom.  

Yet somehow, at least for me, summer time simply slips away. I’m not sure where it goes. A barbecue with friends. A weekend with family. An afternoon of shopping for a gift. My list is still long.

This morning the sky is tinted apricot; the ocean is bands of soft blue. I sit here and watch the colours change and I wonder if I’m missing something by always doing something.

I wonder, too, about our children. What do I do now, the students always ask me, when they have finished something early. Whatever you like, I say. But what, they ask. Do nothing, I say, and they stare at me, perplexed. I wonder if they even know anymore, in these days of always-on-now entertainment, about the rich possibilities of doing nothing. I wonder, too, if, in that slow creeping way of change that overtakes us unnoticed, I, too, will soon know nothing of doing nothing. Will I always, in those moments between doing something, pick up my phone and scroll through Facebook, text a friend, play word games on an app rather than sit and stare out a window? Will I miss something important?

Monday, January 9, 2017

New Year’s Resolution: Do Not Be a Curmudgeon

Lately I’ve begun to feel like one of those dreadful curmudgeons, crossed arms, curled lip, jaded eye, slouched in the back of required meetings. I’m trying to be positive. I love teaching. I love the students. I love the challenge that each day brings. I love puzzling at the end of the day over the children, thinking about how I can engage Janie in the story we are reading or support Andrew in fractions or work with Sandra and Linda to solve the burbling dispute between them. I love designing next step lessons, building on what captured students’ imaginations, adding more steps where they were confused, creating multiple pathways when needed to meet diverse needs and places where we’ll converge again as a community. It’s challenging. It’s stimulating. It’s joyful. It’s exhausting.

I can’t help wishing, though, that someone finally would say, good heavens, let us help teachers. They spend the whole day in one small room with thirty children! They try so hard to teach each of those children beautifully every day! How can we help? What do they need?

Instead, we are always bombarded by more that we need to do. This year, we have a new curriculum, modernized, we’re told, to respond to the new world of constant change. There are new core competencies – communication, thinking, and personal and social competencies – as well as new curricular competencies, big ideas and learning standards for each of the content areas. I am supposed to make sure that what I do matches these new ideas. Connected to this is an experimentation in new reporting procedures. The ultimate goal,” the Minister of Education tells us, “is to develop a student reporting process that gives families a deeper understanding of their child’s progress at school through timely and comprehensive information.” In my district, this means that I need to share with parents “authentic evidence of learning” with “explicit reference to learning standards,” including “descriptive feedback” of how students are doing and “student voice” – their reflection or their description of “where they are in the learning process” – a minimum of 8 times this year as part of “ongoing communication.” In addition, I must write two report cards with comments and, rather than letter grades, include a sliding scale on levels of competency from “beginning” to “extending.”

None of these changes are bad, particularly. Somewhere out there people have worked very hard in meeting rooms around long tables with chart paper and coloured pens, coffee and muffins on the side table to sustain them and assorted sandwiches at lunch. They’ve consulted experts, reviewed the research, and created comprehensive documents complete with coloured charts and appendices.

Yet as I scramble to figure out these new changes, attend meetings, try new programs (we have, as well, a new attendance program, a new online portfolio program, an upcoming requirement to add coding lessons), my attention to the children is necessarily fractured. My time is not infinite. I try not to be angry. I try not to think about the millions of dollars spent on these changes.

Still, I can’t help but imagine, sometimes, what it would be like if even a fraction of that funding were spent on what teachers need, if instead of creating documents to tell us what they need us to do differently (whoever they are, these people who sit comfortably somewhere and have ideas), they came to us to find out what we need instead. Imagine, oh, imagine, a team coming to our school, setting up a space with coffee and muffins, offering us assorted sandwiches at lunch (oh, the luxury!) and time (time!) to sit and ponder with them about the challenges and progress, the obstacles and advantages, the small things that would make a big difference, the resources that would help us move forward. Imagine how it would feel to go back into the classroom (as much as I love teaching, it is hard, hard work and there are days when it all seems impossible). Imagine, then, the bounce in our step, the feeling that we are not alone, that we are appreciated (muffins!) and listened to as though our opinion counted, and supported as though our work mattered.

Instead, the changes roll on. From somewhere. I try to stay positive.