As We Learn

This week I had the amazing opportunity to fly across the country and learn from some of the best in the field of literacy. I never take these amazing opportunities for granted. I recognize the privilege that is extended to me to learn how to better serve my students and build a literacy community that works for all. I was able to learn from some of my literacy heroes like Bob Probst (who is so brilliant I could just listen to him talk forever) Kylene Beers (my idol and friend and inspiration) Tanny McGregor (who helped me feel confident to represent my thinking in new ways) and Pernille Ripp (who inspired pages and pages of thoughts and notes and is one of the most profound speakers I have ever had the privilege of listening to.) I also attended a few other sessions from more local teachers that also taught me a few things. That said as I pondered this morning the work I need to do and the messages I took away I found that a common theme kept coming through. That literacy work is not equitable and that if we want, truly want, all our students to be successful we need to be not only aware of these inequities but we need to be actively addressing them, pointing them out to our students, helping them see how they benefit from these inequities while others unfairly fall further behind.

My learning this week did not start with my conference. It started when I read this beautiful post by Aeriale Johnson that can be found here . The post is beautiful, powerful and important. I don’t want to oversimplify her words so I would ask you to read it. THat being said I found this post started my thinking for the week as Aeriale discusses when she teaches her students to embody compassion versus just teaching them to hold empathy for others. This quote is powerful and really got me thinking about the language I use in my class and how I need to adjust, it also so beautifully collects my own thoughts on empathy and identifies where I have struggled in moving my students beyond feelings and toward action,

“I have begun teaching children to embody compassion instead. Compassion was derived from the Latin word compati, which means to suffer with. Empathy sees injustice and thinks, “How sad! I’d be so broken-hearted if that happened to me.” Compassion shows up in the middle of the storm, remains long after it has passed, and centers the individuals having the experience, giving them space to identify their own feelings and solve their own dilemmas, be their own heroes.”

The fantastic Aeriale Johnson on her blog kinderbender.com (follow it and be better)

As I had this post in my mind I sat at the opening Keynote of the Reading for the Love of It Conference. To begin we were greeted with a group of First Nations Drummer and Dancers. We were blessed to be able to listen to some traditional songs, view their dancing and get a small sample of their culture. After an introduction that very much highlighted the challenges facing many First Nations communities such as no accessible clean water, no working sewage, no access to high schools we were introduced to Tanya Talaga who would deliver our Keynote. Her message was powerful. She focused on the importance of educators stepping up to support our first nations students, she discussed the trauma they are often born into because of Residential School the history and adversity they do not choose but yet is an obstacle that is difficult to overcome. She spoke about the inability to attend High School for some First Nations children because of access, the closest school being 5 hours away. My privilege made this thought, in CANADA unthinkable but yet here it was. She continued to talk about our choices, “We are mostly water, we must choose where we go” At one point she started to talk about equity and began again highlighting the struggles First Nations adolescents in many communities face, parents and grandparent still struggling with the far reaching trauma of residential schools, access limitations on services that we would take for granted like CLEAN, DRINKABLE water and then Access to School, ACCESS TO SCHOOL in 2020! She continued “This is about more than EQUITY it is about survival” The keynote set the tone for my learning and the sessions that followed continued along this point.

I was so blessed to attend the breakout sessions that were put on by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, Pernille Ripp and Tanny McGregor. Each in their own way addressed ways to help our students close gaps and what we as educators can do to provide a more equitable learning experience for all of our students. Kylene and Bob talked about the power of Literacy and not about simply reading and writing but also about the concept that Literacy is about power and privilege. Their examples looked back at the enslavement of Africans in the early United States as well as current places in the world that withhold literacy learning from people as a way to slow or halt their progress to freedom. I thought back to what we just finished learning about in Social Studies class and enslavement of Black people in Canada as well as the power that was wielded by the Catholic church as the only people who likely could read in an area and what that meant for the power and privilege they held. They talked about the importance of making sure all of our students learn to think about the messages they are receiving and have the skills to maneuver the world where news is no longer seen as truth and that having the skills that make up literacy also helps bring about power, power to make decisions, power to decipher all the information they are receiving and make informed decision.

Pernille eloquently talked about her classroom, her work, her students and how she has arrived at a space that values her individual learners and honours and respects them. As we listened to her points around choice, honouring students feelings regarding simple things like taking notes in a conference or sharing their writing work I reflected on the little things I do that do not build community unintentionally. I was struck with the idea that my own assumptions often place a limit on my students and if it is not my assumptions it is the assignment itself. How we assign work, the texts we use in our classrooms, the strategies we employ to teach them. All of theses factors can impact our students and if done without proper examination of our actions can further push inequalities that we don’t always consider.

I am still decompressing from my learning this weekend but here are the beginnings of my thinking

  • Empathy is a start but most certainly is not the end. We must go further.
  • Literacy is power and every person has a right to that power.
  • Our teaching plays an integral role in providing the opportunities to spread that power. We are privileged to have it and it is our responsibility to pass it on.
  • As Pernille mentioned, “Reading is the number one factor for educational success even more so than socioeconomic status” So my goal is to figure out how to get books in homes and reading in our community culture. I can’t always address poverty but I can work to get books in kids hands.
  • Finally Literacy work, Education, is life saving work. As Tanya Talaga shared “Education brought us into this mess and EDUCATION will bring us out of this”

I love to learn. Leaving this conference feeling a renewed sense of both urgency and direction as to what work I need to research and do for my own community was my most powerful take away. Poverty is a problem but so is apathy and a lack of compassion from those who enjoy the privilege of not having to worry about how they might be getting to school, if their water is clean, if there will be food on the table or if there will be someone there to help them with their homework. This is not about some sense of saviour mentality. We all need to start lifting more to make certain equity is within reach not just for our students but for their families and their neighbours. The work is more than just recognizing the problem and feeling bad as Aeriale stated in her blog. It is about compassion, being there to help and support and provide the tools to help lift themselves up. We need to stop piling more and break down the barricades for this to happen.

I am so grateful for those who have served as teachers for me this week as I head back to the classroom.

Continuing to decompress.

School Culture and the unseen

I have wrestled with this post for a week, probably much longer if I am being really honest.

Every year students around the province are asked to complete a survey that intends to inform us about how students, parents, teachers and the community feel about the progress of the school. There are questions that address teaching, safety, class options but what always catches my eye when I see the report, and it is the similar in many schools, is the column on feeling like they are a part of the school community.

In my own attempts to figure this out I talk to my students. Some feel that our school only cares about the students that play sports, some feel that they are not seen because they are a different religion than the majority of the kids, others because they are IBPOC students is a very white school in a very white community in a very white corner of the province.

My first year teaching I was reading a short story about a boy who loves basketball. About half my class were basketball players, I thought it was a hit. Reading through reflections I stumbled in my confidence around story choice. A student wrote not about the story but about their hatred for our schools athletes. In their view they are the only ones who get any attention. The writer shared how they don’t care about athletics at all. Shared that they felt it didn’t matter what their group of friends accomplished in arts, drama, music because we only care about sports. True or not this was the impression that this student was left with. I talked to them after reading it, “I don’t think there is anything else to say, things won’t change.”

That was 2 years ago almost to the week I imagine. The impression of our students has not changed. It is not unique to my school. This I know for a certainty even if the kids that feel this way don’t feel safe or SEEN enough to share it. Yesterday we had day 2 of our big basketball tournament. A lot of planning has gone in to it and to the credit of the organizers a lot of care has gone in to avoid taking time away from the classroom. Yesterday our girls team, who has shared concerns themselves around the support they receive versus the boys team, was playing during the last 2 classes of the day. We were asked to “hype it up”, if we chose to we could bring our students, show them a cheer video that was fun and bring them to cheer on the girls.

Within a minute of finishing the preamble about the game and how it will be so fun to support them I had a handful of students roll their eyes and ask if they could just skip it. I went in to the history of or team spirit and fan support. How it had dwindled over the years and that I remembered the old days where the gym was full of students, cheering and having fun. One student asked why they have to support a team that doesn’t support them. It was like a flash back but this time there was multiple students. All sharing the same feelings, openly. The band students, the colour guard, the actors. So many asking why the school gives up time for basketball games and volleyball pep rallies but not for a band concert. Asking why we are missing class time again, why we can’t just move on without the athletes when they leave class early and they can catch up (some days they miss 3/4 of a class to travel.) In one of these conversations a Basketball player just shouted out, “Why would we go to their things it is BORING!” And in that moment the kids who felt unseen just stepped back into the shadows a bit more.

I don’t think we have, or other schools have a School Spirit problem. We have a School Culture problem and slowly but surely it is eating us alive. Students no longer want to support one another, teachers are feeling stretched and that they must support the sports teams and miss class or be viewed as the unfair teacher or even harder teaching a classroom with only a fraction of the students present because those who want to go just get excused from class.

Adding more questions to my list than I have answers for I look at school culture. How do we help all of our students see each other? Their unique gifts to be celebrated by the school as a community?

Wouldn’t that be remarkable? A school as an actual community where all our students feel seen?

This problem is much larger than any one school, there are unseen students everywhere. I don’t know the answers.

Just so many more questions.

Have we lost the plot?

Today I was working at the school helping in the concession for a tournament. At one point a went to go check out the game that was on and as I walked into the foyer a scene that was unfolding caught my eye. A coach and a player deep in conversation, the player was upset so I could only assume their team had lost. As I watched this interaction I could not help but wonder what they were talking about specifically. Was the coach building the player up or tearing them down? Was there coaching going on or condemnation. Is the fact that I lean more to the latter in both questions a sign of being cynical or accepting the reality? Have we forgotten what is important? Have we lost the plot?

The first time I heard “lost the plot” I chuckled. I thought it was a clever way to express confusion or misunderstanding. As I consider the events of the world both macro and micro I can’t help but think we may have indeed lost the plot. Here are just a few examples.

Reading Instruction

There are arguments to revert back to the instruction of times past, where students will work through drill like practice without the ability to explore the wonderful opportunities choice novels bring. We have shifts moving back to a text book driven curriculum without the freedom to pursue what interests students and drives their inquiry. What is school for? Have we lost the plot?

School Sports

This has been a big one for me lately. I was raised that coaching sports was to build kids up, to coach them up, to teach them. I also was taught to respect my coaches. My dad is a coach among all the other titles he holds. He is the best coach I have ever known. Those who played for him, their families, we are family. Still to this day I see posts about “Once a Warrior, Always a Warrior” Our team name. My Dad was always an example of what I wanted to be when I “grew up”. As a teacher he was masterful and students loved his class, as a coach he is highly respected across the Province and known elsewhere as one of the most sportsmanlike coaches who helped his team be recognized as the most sportsmanlike team in our league. I always bristled at the experience of coaches that didn’t live up to the standard that had been set for me. The ones who yelled and screamed at their players, that used humiliation as some perverse form of motivation. I find it and see it more and more. For heaven’s sake I have received two technical fouls since living here in two years of coaching without even a warning all the years of coaching I did prior. I don’t blame the community I just think we are all forgetting what is important. It seems more and more we value winning games over developing kids, we are more worried about what the community thinks than what the kids think and even more importantly feel. What is coaching for? Have we lost the plot?

What is really important?

If you were to base your opinions of education on the bulk of EduTwitter you would value Kindness over Equity. You would think the biggest concerns most teachers have is to make school more fun. You would think that cute is better than meaningful and you would think those who talk about things such as the work of Antiracism, those who advocate for equality and those who speak out against the oppressive systems that harm so many of our children are just focusing on the negatives and with small individual actions you can change the world. Of course, this is not true but it is easy. I ask again, Have we lost the plot?

The why

So how do we stick to the plot? How do we avoid going off track. A friend of mine use to teach her students in third grade to stick to their map when writing a story. She drew a path that wound through a forest and the kids discussed how wandering off the path and into the forest would keep them from their goal.

We let so much distract us, pride, ease, comfort. But these things are just the forest. They are distractions that pull us off the path and eventually we forget out why. We can forget that this work we do is for our students. I don’t remember sitting in University or doing my student teaching and ever thinking, “One day I am going to post videos to Twitter about how amazing a teacher I am” I don’t remember thinking about becoming famous on Instagram for a cute classroom or making six figures selling things on teachers pay teachers. I remember the students though. I remember the dreams I had and still have to positively impact my students lives, teaching them and hoping that the work we do together will make a difference.

Big Goals, Start Small, Stick to the Path. This is the goal.

Important Conversations

Last year in March I thought about a project where my students could study what they were interested interested in. We called it #projectspeak. We looked at Prince Ea’s What is School for? We discussed their interests but my students in that moment struggled to identify something that they really felt passionate about. There was the odd student that came in ready to discuss a topic but for the most part they had to dig to find something that really motivated them to explore.

This year I decided that we would spend time each week looking at non-fiction texts. Issues in the news, working to look at the environment, topics around equity and helping my students see outside their bubble. See we live in a rural community. There are less than 3000 people that live in our little town. The other day my wife and I were discussing ways in which I can help my students to understand the issues of the world. A large one being equity. My students don’t, for the most part, understand what racism is. Numbers wise we have a student body K-12 that is 90%+ white. The remaining 10% is largely first nations students. When I talk books that do not reflect my students they have until very recently shown little interest. I am finding the journey at times hard to navigate. I don’t want to tell a single story, I want to break up the narratives that promote stereotypes and work to introduce stories that are new to my students and also build a better view of the world as a whole. I also want my students to see that the world does have issues that, to be prepared to live in it, we need to start learning about and addressing.

In a community a mere 30 minutes away there is an opioid drug crises that has poured gasoline on a fire of homelessness, crime, poverty and racist narratives around first nations people. This is 30 minutes away and we are generally isolated from it. This week we have had a few tough conversations around non-fiction text. The first looked at child poverty in our country. As students read the article I had them focus on a few skills. First we established the idea of “So What?” When something stands out to you, when you notice it and think it is important ponder why you feel that way. Then we practiced some TQE and discussion groups formed around the article.

Coming together students wrote their thinking on the board for a full class discussion. It was the first evidence that discussions we have been having around equity, race and privilege this year have been impacting them. Beyond just the books they have stated reading they are thinking with a more critical lens. Students focused much of their attention on the numbers and stats (thank you Notice and Note) and quickly expressed their concerns around the fact that the communities most impacted by poverty were First Nations (both those who live on reserves and off) and families who had recently arrived to Canada as immigrants and refugees. As some students expressed ideas that held their roots in racist narratives they had learned elsewhere other students corrected them and our conversations were not arguments but thoughtful exchanges. One student asked the question if racism was the cause of this poverty another asked about the connection to residential schools and the trauma that continues to reverberate through those communities. Another student simply wrote on the board “What can we do?” This topic will not be a one and done. Some students are already expressing a desire to further research and look at poverty in our country and specifically regarding children.

This week as we just finished looking in Social Studies at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and started looking at the rebellion of the 13 colonies against the British and events that played out after a student mentioned that “slaves came to Canada because it was better for them” on the same day as part of an online campaign for Black History month I saw an article on the Enslavement of Black people in Canada. I am embarrassed to admit that I held the same beliefs that my student did because of the history classes I had and what I was taught. Canada, as far as I understood, did not have a history of benefiting from the enslaved, there was definitely inequitable treatment mentioned in our text books but this was not emphasized much like Residential Schools are not. In reading the fantastic book This book is Antiracist by Tiffany Jewell I saw how important it was to recognize and know our history. We started looking at this article with that lens. Students were shocked, adults in the halls that I asked had not been taught this piece of our history. They only received the safe haven version. As we finish the the article next week the plan is to look at why the narrative of the safe haven has persisted over the years. The 50+ year old coworker and the 12 year old student held the same myth as fact. As we look at and discuss this new to us information my hope is we can apply it to the questions of our history and what it means that this fact is only briefly addressed in our text books and dialogue.

I momentarily hesitated, concerned that these topics might be too tough for my kids but it was only a moment. If we are going to help change the world we need to understand our histories and the current reality of the world. The world does not end at the border of our wonderful little town. Racism is a problem that we need to address even if we can not see its immediate human impact within the walls of our school or classroom. I am learning and growing as an educator as I consider things with an equity lens.

How can I help my students see the world around them?

How can I help them see the role they have in opposing inequality?

This work is not easy, and it is most certainly new territory for my kids to explore and me to address. But there are amazing educators around the world doing amazing equity work, the work of not only Antiracists but also advocates and allies for LGTBQ members of our communities, those working to draw attention to economic inequalities and the issues that are woven in with that.

My journey in this work and teaching started with a renewed clarity last May, I am so late to this work and I am learning and making mistakes along the way. But there are so many educators that are brilliantly leading and can be supported through amplifying their messages, pushing to ensure organizers of conferences and speaking opportunities know these folx are the ones that we want to learn from. Book publishers are looking to jump on these topics. We as educators wanting to learn need to make sure we are supporting those who have been doing the work, if books on these topics are to be published let those who have been advocating for it be the ones to write them. I have been blessed to learn from an amazing group on these topics.I try to amplify them whenever possible and honour their work. Some conversations can be tough to have, especially when the issues are not so clearly identified in our communities but that doesn’t mean that are any less important.

We can't Read what we Can't Access

I was at work incredibly early this morning and sitting at my computer in the silence. On my desk there was a little pile of books, to my left another behind me some more. The shelves of the classroom library in their typical Friday disarray. I love my classroom library. I love to be able to pick a few books off the shelf to book talk when I see that I have students a little less engaged in the joy of independent reading. Today I picked up The Truth According to Mason Buttle, Endling and Outlaw of Time the Legend of Sam Miracle and talked about them to my class. Within moments of finishing books were in hands being read. This repeated itself when I shared The Graveyard Book, A Tale Dark and Grimm and A Taste for Monsters. The pattern repeated and students had books in hand.

Yesterday I had a student sheepishly return a pile of books that he had collected in his locker and book bag. The same student had done this early in the week and I jokingly asked if he had anymore hiding somewhere. More appeared. I don’t have a lot of rules when it comes to my classroom library.

Class Library Rules

  1. Picture Books stay at school (I have a lot for a junior high teacher and I use them for lessons so I don’t want them going missing)
  2. Turn in the book jacket for hardcovers you want to borrow. (they are expensive and I hang the jackets on a clothesline, it looks cool)

There we go. I started with more rules. Rules like Graphic Novels stay in school, Read at least one “real” book for every Diary of a Wimpy Kid (this rule was idiotic and was eliminated years ago). I was so much more controlling about my books. They cost a lot of money and I wanted to protect them. But I realized these silly rules that have been eliminated where limiting access to my students. The rules left and reading increased. One student this year read Witch Boy and the sequels almost exclusively at home. He couldn’t stop. Now all his friends have read it. My copies of The New Kid and Crossover in Graphic novel are tattered and well loved. These graphic novels would have had limited play if I had not loosened the reigns a bit.

I love my class library and I love that my students will “shop” from it because I can invest in important books that otherwise my students might not see. I also love to have my students go to the library because we offer different experiences. In the end the goal is that my students are reading and have access to books. I never really thought of it as that big of an issue, not having access to books. I always had a library card and remember going but I also remember another experience as a kid and that was the Scholastic Book Fair. I remember going during school and being able to look at all the different books and trinkets. I remember dragging my mom there on parent teacher interview night with the hopes that she would let me pick out a book. We didn’t grow up with a ton of extra money or things but I remember occasionally getting a cool Goosebumps book or some other book like my Dinosaur fact and sticker book from Grade 1. I remember handing those stickers out and reading facts to my friends. The ownership of the book was powerful. It was MY book.

My Dad told me a story once when he went to help someone clean their home before moving. As a life long educator and reader he was struck by an observation he had they entered the home. No books anywhere. Not a newspaper, no magazines. No printed word. The family couldn’t afford extras and in their mind books were extra. In a complete flip in another conversation with a fellow educator they told me about a family in our community that is very well off. They said, as I addressed links to poverty and lack of books in the home and literacy rates, these people could afford all the books and there is not a book in the home. So it seems that beyond just the affordability of building a home library parents need to understand how much having books in the home can help their children thrive in academic settings.

As I am going forward I am playing with doing some research on home libraries in my community and the surrounding ones. Why people do not have books in their homes, if they do how many? What types/titles? I also want to look at poverty because I know that for so many The Scholastic Book Fair is one of their first experiences with realizing they can’t afford what their friends have. I want to look at this idea of home libraries to remove the often heard excuse “kids just don’t want to read” without access they could want until the end of the day but with nothing at arms reach they are without opportunity.

Of course public and classroom libraries can help but for so many those are limitations as well. Distance to the library, teachers serving as gate keepers to limit student choice. Late fees and rules that limit checkouts when a late fine is hanging over head. And we must not forget the ineffective libraries that student have at their finger tips but never touch because they serve as more of a classroom prop than a tool for liberation.

I have seen so many conversations lately around reading instruction. How reading is a human right, a social justice issue. And I agree. It is. But I am not sold on the idea that the instruction is our biggest mountain. Books need to be read, they need to be available, students should not have to hope that their teacher or the librarian will let them read the books they love or worry that because they lost a book they are on hold until they can pay the fees or replace the book.

Providing students with multiple access points to books is the first step in addressing the struggles our striving readers have but we have more work to do. We need to help those who do not understand book access see that they can help.

I am so grateful for the work done by many and in this issue I am shouting out Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp and the amazing attention they bring this issue. Book Access is a complicated issue with many factors but ultimately a simple solution.

Kids will read books if they can choose them and there are not roadblocks to their access.

Once Upon a time

“One upon a time, there was a boy who was invincible,” he whispered, breathing in deeply and filling his lungs with knight superpowers.

The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast-Samantha M. Clark

I read this line this morning. The “Once upon a time” section appears throughout the story as the main character talks about himself. I am not sure why it struck me but I thought about it all day long.

This year has been especially tough. Not because of any one thing I just am finding it difficult to find my groove. Like I am having some kind of teaching identity crisis. Which is ironic because I just finished talking identity with my students and we were creating webs. I know who I am and who I want to be as a teacher but it is like there is almost a fog that has come in and the path is not quite clear.

I love literacy work, I love to read with and to my students. I love to hear their thoughts and reflections around a text and see the beautiful words they string together. Today they reflected on moments in their lives. Writing beside pictures or items as I take the advice of Kelly Gallagher in “Write Like This”. We reviewed Notice and Note signposts as I took a moment to just sit in the brilliance that Kylene Beers and Bob Probst brought into my life.Students reflected this week on the words of Rudy Francisco and we discussed the Worlds Deadliest animals. Would anyone else have guessed a snail kills more than a shark? The power of media…

This year I have felt like there are moments that I am losing what I think is important chasing after extras.The next big thing, the cool new activities. Following these folks who think good teaching is standing on tables and performing for, instead of working with our students. The pull to be an author over being a teacher. Listening to the noise over noticing the needs.

So I start to reflect, I start to adjust. Back to the basics.

We Read, We Write, We Share

We don’t need a fancy formula. We don’t need a production. Engagement doesn’t come from glitz and glam. It comes from purpose. Authenticity.

I am adding work to our routine that addresses Social Justice and Anti-racism not because I feel students are being missed or disenfranchised because our demographics are pretty slanted one way. I am doing it because the world is diverse and I want my students not just prepared for it but I want them to embrace it. I don’t want them to enter the big beautiful diverse world with only a few experiences they might have gathered from a handful of books. I want them to be curious, inquiry driven minds that want to solve the problems of the world because they see the injustice that is so prevalent. We are going to do this through books and experiences. There are so many already doing this work beautifully and I hope we can add our hands to it.

The fog is clearing.

Once upon a time, there was a teacher, he knew what he wanted and where he was going. He got lost for a minute. But I think he has been found.

The most important work

A few years ago I attended a conference where I was introduced to a speaker named Dr.Jody Carrington. The sessions discussed emotional regulation and another talked about the concept of compassion fatigue and those in fields of work like teaching needing to practice some self care. I was immediately struck by her passion (and the swearing) but she was so dedicated to her message and the importance of helping both the kids and those working with them because our work is so important.

In the years since I have followed her on Social Media including tuning in to her Facebook Live sessions on Sundays and watching her book, “Kids These Days move from an announcement to a tangible accomplishment that I at one point owned 4 copies of and have the audiobook that she narrates.

The book is a wonderful resource when looking at a variety of important topics with actionable steps.

The kids in our care during the school day have so much on their plate that is just school related. Work load, expectations, extra curricular like sports, clubs and other activities all add up. I don’t remember a lot of multi-sport kids when I was younger. I don’t remember kids having to miss out on class because the only time they could fit piano lessons in was during the school day. We have all of these things on their already full plate and then for some they are arriving to school with a plate that is already half full with trauma, income inequalities and other factors FAR outside their control.

The wisdom found in Jody’s book and in her keynote presentations gives educators advice in how to work with, lift up and support all of our students and specifically those who are facing these significant obstacles.

Teachers need support too. Our students are often struggling and we feel powerless to do much when it is happening outside of our walls. The emotional strain is significant. A few years ago I was ready to quit teaching. I was doing everything I could possibly do around the school I worked at. I was invested in my students and burning the candle at both ends, actually the candle was really just one big fire. A single piece of advice from Jody really put it in perspective for me. “We can’t light ourselves on fire to keep others warm.” Now at the time I looked at it like I needed to take care of myself first, the whole put your mask on in an emergency before those around you. But as I looked at the words more I realize for myself it is about looking at what is left in the tank and who gets the reserves.

You can choose the analogy, filling a bucket, drink from an empty glass… whatever the case. As I wrote about a while back for some of our students the world is on fire and we can’t help them if we have nothing left to give. So we need to be mindful. Help our students in need but also help ourselves and those we work with. It is ok to ask for help. Like Jody says we are doing some of the most important work.

Please join use tomorrow (Thursday 8:30 EST, 6:30 MT) for our #G2Great chat with Dr.Jody Carrington as we discuss he book Kids These Days and the powerful topics it addresses.

What a team looks like

This time of year the Gilsons, when not teaching, are at basketball. If not working in the concession, I am sitting on the bench or in the stands cheering the kids on. We love to support the kids, we love visiting with the parents but it is a time commitment and I think often other things suffer because attention and time are spread so thin.

We were at a game the other night and the rival team was perhaps the most vocal and energetic bench I had ever witnessed. They did not stop chanting and cheering on their teammates on the floor the whole game. It was “D-fence” chants on defence and a new one to me “work” on offence and it was not just a few seconds here and there is was rhythmic, they were clapping to a beat and chanting and it was motivating even as someone cheering the opposite team. They, the bench, were like a 6th man on the floor. Working in unison to lift up their teammates. It was something else. But that was not the end to this impressive display of teamwork. At half time while most coaches I know fill the time with coaching, talking to the team pointing out areas they can improve, hopefully offering compliments to what they are doing well, this teams coach stepped away. The players lead their half time discussion. They celebrated each other, they coached each other, they offered feedback constructively. There was no finger pointing, they were lifting each other up. Those of us sitting together all noticed this display of unity, team, family. It was impressive.

Looking at teaching, because it all comes back to that I leave with a few thoughts.

  • How can my classroom reflect this team more?
  • How can my staff support each other more?
  • How can my students take on this lift up versus call down mentality?
  • How do we build this within our own organizations?

We talk a lot in teaching and in coaching. We value a sense of community, we worry more about the kids than the scores, it is about helping develop character and being part of the team that helps develop awesome homes. But what about when the results are down? What about when we forget about the “WORK” what about when the kids do?

These are the moments that really define us. I am grateful I have so many amazing team members with my wife, PLN, coworkers and students. But we have work to do.

Work.

What do we do when the world is on fire?

Yesterday I was talking with a teacher in a very small school who has had 3 or 4 students this year attempt suicide or report suicidal ideations to the point of having to enter a monitored treatment program. We are talking 10 year olds. Some friends, some not but all dealing with mental health struggles that I don’t remember having experienced when I was a kid.

Today a student brought up the Iran conflicts and another wanted to talk about the fires in Australia. If it is literal fires burning or just the different conflicts in the world we have significant issues going on that need to be talked about. Our kids have questions.

I think if we took a poll we would see that mental health issues have spiked significantly from when we were young (I say that as a 37 year old, I imagine it becomes more and more rare the older we look back) I wonder if it is reported more now but regardless I do believe we are seeing students with a higher level of frequency having to deal with issues that need significant help.

Of course mental health is not the only issue, we have students having to navigate, sometimes seemingly solo the trials of poverty. Others intolerance for whatever reason. Bullying continues to be an issue in our schools. We add all of these issues together and it is a seemingly insurmountable challenge.

I wrote the first part of this blog yesterday and then this morning I woke up and discovered this tweet by the incredible Tricia Ebarvia on Twitter.

Just an example of the ingrained racism that exists in our school systems. I read this tweet and remembered a conversation where a fellow teacher mentioned their belief that “as a people” first nations don’t value reading and that is why their kids are so much further behind than their white counterparts. I was floored by the racism in the statement and more disgusted by the other heads in the conversation nodding in agreement. How this blatantly racist myth was continuing to be spread was evident to me. I was new to the division and turned to call out the racism and thankfully another teacher who had more years experience also jumped in to call out the racism but the myth still exists and continues to be used to excuse and defend the poor reading results that seem to be coming from those communities. I can’t help but wonder why we as educators are not looking at things like institutional racism, poverty rates among families on the reserve, access to books, access to breakfast and other dynamics instead of just putting the results on their culture. Probably because it is easier and many are not interested in doing the hard work to address these inequities.

Two days ago when I was pushing back on a quote that basically implied kids who work hard and give it their all will achieve their goals it was implied that I was somehow trying to crush the dreams of kids by saying we should not perpetuate that myth. That we should tell kids that trying hard is great but making room that there are factors that society needs to work on, systems in place that require some kids to work so much harder that society needs to address. I was greeted by a white educator (I would normally not point our race but in this instance it provides context) telling me they are sick and tired of white middle class educators talking about the barriers that keep kids from achieving their goals. Saying that the claim bordered on White Supremacy. I feel in some way they must have misunderstood what I was saying. Or they misunderstand white supremacy but regardless they wanted to shut down the conversation, they wanted the nice little fairy tale that hard work pays off for everyone to continue. It doesn’t. Some of our students will need more support than just their hard work and we as a society need to provide that support through challenging and changing this system of inequalities.

These last few weeks I have made clear my distaste for the message that kindness cures all. I am not in any way against kindness. I think it is support important. I do not however find the message around it profound. Kindness is common sense and being unkind is not generally the source of the worlds problems. My bigger issue comes when I see how much EduTwitter, which I am an active participant holds tightly to the one small act of kindness message. This Starfish idea. I read that fable the other day again and thought it was such a nice story, the boy was right, making a difference for that one starfish was a great act for that one starfish and yes if everyone on that beach was chucking starfish back in the ocean maybe we could save all the starfish but they are getting washed back up tomorrow because that is the system. Kids are not starfish and telling a sweet story and doing one small kind act is not going to fix the system.

Our kids worlds are on fire. Racism, bigotry, mental health issues, poverty, opportunity gaps, achievement gaps, bullying, world conflict, social media and the spread of misinformation that contribute to the rise of anxiety not to mention underfunded education programs that disproportionately impact communities of colour are hurdles that require more than simple acts. The other day I made the comment it is like trying to put out a fire with an eye dropper and the more I see the more I know this to be true.

Yesterday I talked to my kids about the world water crisis, we also talked about Iran and Australia and other things too. We addressed misinformation and the need to examine sources for accuracy. Going forward I am going to focus more on “tough” topics. I am going to work on compassion, empathy, kindness and action. Even a million eye droppers will not put out a fire. The heat would evaporate those little drops before they make a difference. We need educators and communities coming together to address the issues causing our students lives to be in turmoil.

Their Worlds are burning. We need to do more.

Hello Tomorrow

Tomorrow we head back to school. The break has been pretty relaxing. I did less work than I should have, I watched a lot of movies and listened to some awesome podcasts. I should have read more but reading slumps happen and I have a lot of books waiting for me when I am ready. I use to beat myself up about not working very hard on down time. But I am getting better with the concept of GRACE. I am not as hard on myself as I was even two years ago when I thought I needed to spend every minute outside of school…doing school.

I think about this idea of grace when it comes to our students. This week kids are going to be either excited to come back or like many adults mourning the loss of their holiday. Behaviours are going to be on the rise and our ability to handle them with grace will be at a low because we have not had to practice that particular brand of patience for a couple weeks.

Beyond that I think we need to remember that not all of our students had a fabulous break. I think about the kids who have parents that can’t take the time off or can’t afford to do the fun things, get the great gifts that others are so excited to tell everyone about.

In the past I made the absent minded mistake of giving kids time to share how their break was. I never considered that this would be problematic. I thought I was just being the KIND teacher who was giving his students some free time to share and celebrate their fun break. Now instead of kindness I consider empathy.

Tomorrow is a great reset. It is any day not just after a two week break. We are too hard on ourselves and too hard on our kids some times so tomorrow I practice Grace and Empathy. Both will require a little work and patience. I challenge everyone to do the same.

I love the return to school. I also have high anxiety over it. It is ok for teachers to not be excited give yourselves some Grace as well 🙂