Death’s Door

Head pounding. I type these words with my last remaining reserves of energy. Achy everywhere. So hot, feverish. Exhausted. Nauseated. Sinuses twinge. Throat tickle. Cough, cough. My neck is stiff and sore. *Gasp!* Do I have meningitis? 

I expected to be tired after a week and a half of one-on-one assessments and portfolio preparation and student reflections and organising and two days of parent/teacher/student learning conferences. I didn’t expect to feel so flattened. 

The Throwback

Hanging on the blue wall, in a translucent frame that exposes the withered edge of the paper, is an etching. A genuine “come up and see my etchings” kind of etching; a bygone style, rarely recognised, unfamiliar, barely worthy of nostalgia.

The mood of the piece is gloomy, oppressive. The heavy shadow of trees obscures much of the detail of the scene, depicting a road leading to an ancient building. Next to the road, a church spire blends into the darkness, suggesting early morning, moonlight, or an especially grey day. A curved window shines out of the church wall, providing the scene with depth and life. The glare lights the yard beneath the window, casting a glow on a lone tree in the foreground, giving the viewer a better sense of shape in the shadows. On closer inspection, the picture is more filled with light than first impressions elicit. The shadows dominate and the light provides shape and contrast. However, the light is still muted, as the only sources are the small church windows and the cloudy (moonlit?) sky.

The picture is far too small for the proportions of the wall on which it hangs. A tiny, A3 sized beige swatch resting on a turquoise field. The centring of the piece presents it as something important, something to be cherished and regarded, to pause and reflect upon. 

Below the sharply defined edges of the picture is the faint pencil scrawl of a name and a title. With much squinting, the name “Maurice Emile Blieck” is discerned along with the words “Ypres, Cloître Saint Pierre,” the monastery of St. Peter, Ypres.

Compounding Rate of Interest

On Monday my Drama class was cancelled at the last minute. The Middle School Drama class had an urgent need to use our rehearsal space. On the previous Friday they skipped school with their Drama teacher CR and went to the Climate Strike. After the protest, they returned to the school and spent 48 hours in the Drama studios “devising” a play about their experience and their concerns regarding inaction over climate change.  After a flurry of rearranging I was able to send the majority of my grade 6 students to their music teachers. Then 5 grade 6 student representatives and I joined teachers, school leaders and MS and HS students to watch the play.

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The play was actually fantastic. I was surprised really, because how good can something be when you put it together in just 48 hours? Well, the MS students proved me wrong and I was mesmerised. The grade 6 students were inspired. We got together after the play and decided to create a presentation for the rest of grade 6 about the play and what we learned. I don’t really know what else to do at this point, other than to try to drum up more interest. 

Unfinished Part 1: On Transfer

This piece is unfinished. I may or may not finish it this week. I have Learning Conferences this week and I am underprepared. So I don’t think I will finish a lot of my slices this week. 

“Do you promise me that you didn’t use Google Translate for this sentence?” I interrogate my wee student.

“Yes, I promise!” she protests.

“Ok, but this sentence is extremely good. I haven’t taught you this construction, ‘There once was a girl by the name of – “

“It’s from the play in Drama class!  The Nutting Play! “There once was a town by the name of Nutting!”

Face palm.

I apologise profusely to my student. At my school, we’ve been talking so much about “transfer” and what it looks like that when it hits me in the face I can’t recognise it.

In fact, the outline above isn’t necessarily the best example of my students’ ability to transfer. As English Language Learners my students are constantly transferring their understanding from one context to another; the understanding is not necessarily fully formed and accurate, but the trial and error of trying things out in different contexts is part of the learning process. Surely it is possible to micro-transfer and then build knowledge with each successive experimentation. It seems like transfer to me. Why not?

The problem is, what my ELL students are doing is not a “sanctioned” form of transfer. At my school we have moved away from traditional grading and into a labelling of developmental stages in skill building: Beginning, Developing, Applying, Transferring.  For each objective, according to the benchmark criteria, we judge whether students are in one of the above stages. The first three labels are ok, but “Transferring” is creating considerable consternation. At this point in my thinking, I believe grading according to “Transferring” is a terrible idea unwise.

Focusing on supporting students to transfer is a worthy endeavour, I’m just not in favour of having to assess their ability to transfer. 1) In order to do it properly we have to ensure that every teacher in every grade only has good transfer tasks for assessment AND they must have enough skill building practice so that all students have had enough opportunity to apply before they transfer. 2) None of us actually know what “Transferring” looks like yet. We know what “Applying” looks like, but not “Transferring.” 3) An exam, by definition, is an example of a transfer task. So then we’re just back to traditional forms of assessment and the developmental stages are simply smoke and mirrors to suggest we are progressive when we’re not. 4) At the end of the day, if we haven’t assured that point #1 is completely in place, then a student’s inability to transfer is a reflection of the teacher, not the student. 5) Alternatively, if the teacher has done everything they can to support the student and transfer still isn’t happening, then the student has “failed” to transfer. It becomes a zero-sum situation, regardless of the other stages.

A report card is a very specific document in our culture. It has social capital. It says something about who we are as individuals. It opens doors of all kinds. It is, at heart, not a progressive tool in education. It just isn’t. Someone labels who we are and that determines where we go next.

Transfer is a cognitive process, not a measurement.

 

Photo credit: https://www.iexpats.com/pension-transfer-frenzy-cooling/

The cycle

Night. 11:45. The pillow is just not good enough. My neck aches, shooting pain to my temple and down across my shoulder, racing down my arm into my fingers. 12:30. The comforter is too hot, too heavy, oppressive. I whip it off for the relief of cool night air. A welcome breeze from the open window brings the sound of midnight revellers, trotting down the cobble stone street in high heels and heavy boots, shrieking with drunken laughter. 1am. I turn over and accidentally kick Dog 1. He bites my foot in retaliation. 1:30. Now I am too cold. I snuggle under the blanket and for a moment I relax, feeling the sweet release of slumber almost within my grasp. What was it my coworker said to me yesterday? Oh yeah, what did she mean by that? Was she trying to tell me that I was too Oh god I remember a time when my cousin suggested I didn’t have a career plan and that I was wasting my life Did I remember to email that parent about the issue on the playground last Where did I put my mother’s wedding ring? God, if I lose that she will haunt me. I should probably look for that tomorrow, maybe I should check right now? No I am too tired I need to lose at least 10 llbs but how am I supposed to do that if I can’t sleep and I don’t have enough energy to go to the gym Well maybe if I went to the gym I would feel more tired Yeah tried that God I hate being in charge of other people I think I am inherently

2am. Ok, forget it, I’m just gonna stream Grey’s Anatomy on my phone until my body can’t take it anymore and I go unconscious.

Morning. 7am. The bed is so soft and warm. I sleep for 10 minutes more. My eyes pry themselves open, sticky and crusted with sleep gunk. Dog 1 is curled against my belly, jittering slightly in REM sleep. Dog 2 is at my feet snoring peacefully. Husband is downstairs, already washing dishes, having already shaved, showered, possibly even fed and walked the dogs, who then returned to bed without my even noticing. 7:20am. The pillow caresses my face. Nothing has ever felt this good. My day can only go down from here. 7:30am. Coffee is plunked down on my bed side table.

“Good morning,” my weary husband sighs.  “You should really get up hun. I’ve gotta go now. I love you.”

“Mmloveyiu.” I answer. Hand to cup. Cup to mouth. Administer drug. 

By the Book

This post is a direct rip-off of Elizabeth Ellington’s post from today at the Dirigible Plum. In the post she uses the NYT By the Book interview format to interview herself. I love this idea because I love learning about what other people are reading; it is a socially acceptable form of voyeurism.

What books are on your nightstand?

I’m going to be all 21st century and say I have a IRL nightstand and a digital nightstand. I love audiobooks and I easily listen to more books than I physically read. Anyway, on my Kindle I am currently reading Anne Carson Bird by Bird, Second Language Learners in International Schools by Carder, Mertin and Porter, and 10 Minute Plays for Kids of all Ages by Carlene Griffith. In audiobooks I’m listening to Heavy by Kiese Laymon and Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. Physical books include Thick by Tressie McMillam Cottom, We Got This by Cornelius Minor, Being the Change by Sara AhmedWhat if all the kids are white? by Derman-Sparks and Ramsey, and Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada by Chelsea Vowel.

Who is your favorite novelist of all time?

So sad. Look at all the books I’ve listed. They’re all non-fiction! And I love fiction! I don’t know, I’ve read a lot of Thomas Hardy, so I’ll go with Hardy. But this answer changes as I age, so ask me again in 5 years.

What’s the last great book you read?

White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism by Robin DiAngelo. It is life changing.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

Everything from White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism by Robin DiAngelo.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

(This is going to sound super pretentious, but I swear it is true) I love the early work of Naguib Mahfouz. He is an Egyptian Nobel prize winning author and I love, love, love his Cairo Trilogy and Midaq Alley.  The Cairo Trilogy is a bit like 100 Years of Solitude but without the magical realism.

Whose opinion on books do you most trust?

My friend Sherri has turned me on to a ton of books. My husband. The people I follow on Twitter have never steered me wrong.

When do you read?

Thanks to audio books, I read on my way to work, I read while running for the bus, I read in the shower, and I read while riding motorised scooters without a helmet. I don’t like reading in bed – either I get too tired to understand what I’m reading or I get to jazzed by what I’m reading and I stay up late.

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

For the most part I don’t like reading teacher education books. I actually find them quite difficult to learn from. We Got This, Being the ChangeWhat if all the kids are white?and Strategies That Work have been the exception.

I don’t like fantasy. I’ll wait for the tv series to come out.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs and sociology. I like books of essays. I used to read a lot of romance novels, so when a good one of those comes my way it’s hard to say no.

How do you organize your books?

Well, I would love to organise them like this:

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But instead they are organised like this:

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What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I have a couple books about Quaker philosophy, which I think would surprise people.

Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?

Is Esther Greenwood from The Bell Jar a heroine or an antihero?

Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

The first truly scary book I ever read was The Dollhouse Murders when I was 11 or so. I actually bought it again a couple of years ago and it is hilarious because it would never be in a school library these days. A girl, with the help of her autistic brother, investigates the gruesome murder of a family in the house she’s currently living in through clues brought to her by a haunted dollhouse?  Classic children’s literature. I wish I had kids of my own to share it with.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism by Robin DiAngelo.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

David Foster Wallace, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxanne Gay. (I just realised they are all essayists… huh.)

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

Ugh, The Goldfinch was the worst. But I did finish it because I thought I was missing something and I was going to find something redeeming in the last few pages. I did not. Also, Catcher in the Rye is not ANYWHERE NEAR as good at The Bell Jar.  I don’t know why no one else acknowledges that.

The last book I put down without finishing was Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham. There are better books of essays to read.

What book do you plan to read next?

I do want to read some fiction and I have Cormack McCarthy’s The Road on my shelf and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh in my audible library. Also, I really need to read more James Baldwin, so Giovanni’s Room too.

Good Lookin’

More than a dozen years ago I was dating a man who considered himself a poet and a novelist. One day I went for dinner at his house.

“Did you just move in?” I asked

“Several months ago,” replied Poet.

“Oh,” I said, looking around me. On an uncluttered shelf I noticed a single, slim volume of Tuesday’s with Morrie, propped up against a law textbook. “Then where are all your books?”

“Ha,” he scoffed. “I don’t read.”

“Whaat?” I laughingly responded, disbelieving. “But you’re a writer.  Writer’s read!”

“I don’t agree that you need to read to be a great writer.” he dismissed me, haughtily. “I am inspired by life.”

I never got the opportunity to find out if this was true, as I was only given the honour of reading one of his poems. (To be fair, the novel he had written wasn’t in English, so it was my fault for not being able to read it.) I remember him handing me the poem reverently, his eyes on my face to watch my reaction.

“Wow… So good…” I assured him, laughing nervously. I mean, it was ok. My roommate at the time was an awesome award-winning play write and she was always giving me bits her of work to read, so I knew what good looked like. Anyway, whatever, maybe I just didn’t “get” it. 

The point is, I’m going to stick with my original bias and say that writers read, especially good ones who want to be betterI knew what good looked like because I loved to read widely and I had read my friend’s amazing work. She knew what good looked like because she read all the plays, poems, novels, essays she could get her hands on.

This challenge has been amazing because it has put me in the habit not only of writing every day, but of reading the blogs of other teachers. Reading and commenting is time-consuming, and I read a lot more posts than I comment on, but I get so much inspiration from this community that it is always worth it. You all help me know what good looks like again and again and again.  

I wish there were more hours in the day to read all of your work.