This way or that?

From The North Star by Peter Reynolds

Every year I start by reading The North Star by Peter Reynolds to my class. I deeply love this story and the lessons within. I have a signed copy with a note from Peter Reynolds, it was a gift from a friend I made online. I cherish it. The story serves as a lesson in finding our own path. A child walks along a path following both signs and the advice of others. Along the way there are bumps, detours and increasingly difficult terrain to manage. As the boy travels further he seems to lose his way. Unsure of the next steps, unsure of the advice of others. Unsure. The boy looks for his own path, he looks to the stars and is guided to a new way, his way.

I have been thinking about this story, my favourite, for a few days now. After my interview last week and the subsequent messages from countless well-wishers (I really do appreciate that kindness) I started to wonder if I had indeed followed the wrong signs, taken the wrong advice. Perhaps I had followed the speedy rabbit who was not really paying attention to the signs saying WRONG WAY. Perhaps I was paying too much attention to the voices like the crow saying, “Keep Going” or even the frogs with only their perspective. I don’t know, but I became unsure of what my next steps will be. I have been deep in the thick of the forest and it is time to look up at the stars.

I have been writing about my gratitude more lately. Trying to think positivity into existence to counter all the uncertainty, all of the negative that is out there. Some days it works, other days it doesn’t. What has been helpful though is that reflection time. So today, after what was a long and truthfully uncomfortable at times week, I am sitting here, in the woods, but looking for the stars.

I have no idea where I am going, I have no idea where I will be. But I am looking up, I am looking for the guide to the right path. The path I am supposed to take. We all come to forks in the road or heck sometimes we come to whole utensil drawers but part of the journey is thinking about the choices and then taken that step.

I don’t know the next step, I have hit the bumps this year for sure, I have ran into some detours. There are great people sending their encouragement to keep going forward and others giving me permission to sit, pause, breathe and decide. Figure it out. I appreciate both types of folks lifting me up in their own way.

The journey is long and I might be unsure of where to go next but I am looking up. The path will come and I just need to be sure of the decision.

Part of the fun.

So while I am dreaming

Lately I have found myself dreaming of a lot of things. I imagine it is the impact of WandaVision in my life. This notion of being able to alter reality with a thought. I am not a believer in the teacher= superhero nonsense, this year especially I am just too tired but I think that is where dreaming has come in so wonderfully handy. We can dream about what we don’t yet have and maybe, we can bring some of those dreams forward, alter reality.

Our school is hiring a new Principal tomorrow. Lately I have been dreaming about the school I could one day lead. The potential. The ability to bring change, alter reality, even by a little bit.

I dream about how I might help bring the beliefs of my classroom to the school. Seeing my students for their excellence as Dr. Gholdy Muhammad says and I have put on my wall and cite often. Giving them the chance to grow, to find their genius that is just under the surface ready to celebrated. To create a school community where our excellence adorns the walls in words. What about a school where parents come in and know what we value because it can’t be missed? What about a school that every student is seen, celebrated and knows that we have their back? What about a school where our practice as teachers honours our unique learners? What about a school where teachers are excited about the discomfort that learning new, improved pedagogy always brings at first, like lifting new weight in the gym? How do we create that school?

I think we start by accepting that we are not there yet. I think we start by looking at what we can do better. We start with the community. How do we build a community from so many different pieces and make it one? The thought of advisory classes came to mind. Building groups of grade 7-12 students to work together and learn together for moments of every day. I think there is such potential for greatness, mentorship and friendships being formed all while building a whole school community. As we work to build those connections more excellence will be noticed. More genius discovered. Community from a collection of pieces.

Community is only part of the puzzle, an important one but not the whole puzzle. I dream about schools where learning and celebrating that learning comes in the form of student driven inquiry and effective instruction that sparks that curiosity and drive to explore. I dream of classes of students seeing issues and taking what they have learned in class and applying that learning to try and solve those issues. The last few weeks as my students look at isolation and identity they have looked at possible solutions for food insecurity. Their science teacher has them researching issues around agriculture and trying to propose solutions. We are not abandoning “skills” instruction we are just weaving it in to real life problems and chances to show our learning to solve them. Students are practicing real life reading, researching and writing. What if we were doing that across the school? What if every student had the chance to take that spark of curiosity and ignite a fire of inquiry work that demonstrates the skills stated in the curriculum in an authentic way? What if the kids who loved tests could take them and those who displayed their excellence in other ways could choose that?

This would, of course, take learning on our part as teachers but what is our job if not to facilitate our students genius to shine? This week I have had multiple students visit with me about their struggles with testing. Completely unsolicited. Stopped by to say hi to them not knowing they were studying and their stress was visible. “Mr. Gilson I do so well in class, tests don’t show what I know but they are my grade” I dream of a school where we are working for that student’s excellence to shine through even if that means as teachers we need to reflect, grow and change our practices away from those that dim our students’ shine.

I am not going to stop dreaming about what could be. It is too important. A school that works to honour the excellence of all of our students, celebrating their genius and the unique and important role they play in our school community. A community of learners, students, teachers and administration. All working to be the best we can be for each other. That is the dream and one day it is going to be a reality. One day.

Going Point-Less: A Reflection

Last spring as my teaching world sort of collapsed around Covid, kids were sent home to participate in somewhat optional online learning (we won’t get into all those details) and we were forced to look at a grade generated by an average of scores rather than a true reflection of learning covered I pondered what I could possibly do better to address student learning and assessment. About this same time I was able to listen to a Podcast where Dr. Sarah Zerwin talked about her assessment approach in her book Point-less.

This was the answer I was looking for, I got the book and dove in reading and planning. I looked at my curriculum and the things I needed to cover and created learning goals that could encompass all of those objectives. I looked at how I might assess those learning goals, what classroom activities would be able to address multiple things for not only efficiency but also to make sure we had multiple touch points. I was excited and as the school year started back up again and I introduced the concept to the kids they too seemed excited, “You mean we get a say in our grade?” or “We get to decide what we focus on?” were common responses. Students selected their main goals, those they needed to reflect on more intently and I worried about the rest. This has been a journey and as I reflect at an end of a semester I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the good the not so good and the things I plan to change.

The Good

In talking to my students I asked them to reflect on this process and overwhelmingly I received comments about they felt less stressed when they saw a lot of feedback versus a low grade. They appreciated the feedback as it helped them improve. They were not worried about a grade they just felt we were focused on getting better and they all did. The grade conferences really helped them understand how they were doing. I was pleased to hear this as it was my biggest concern but it wasn’t all roses.

The Not So Good

One theme that came up was misunderstanding. Some felt that if they completed the feedback it should immediately mean they should have 100%. So I will need to be clearer on that front. Another student reflected that it would help to know what to tell their parents when asked “How are you doing?” because parents are still looking for a grade. I am thinking I might send a letter home helping parents to craft those questions so the response is more around how they are growing versus how they are doing.

Change is Coming

The biggest piece that I received from my kids today is they didn’t always think they had feedback that reported progress enough. What they meant was a grade. Because of report cards I have to have a grade at different points in the year. So the workaround is a reflective conversation where a grade is determined together. I had a few of my students who are moving on in the second semester share that a grade drove them to work harder and lacking that grade made it frustrating. I am taking that in and reflecting on how I might adjust. More feedback, more specific? Sharing a number more frequently? I worry that defeats the purpose.

Where next?

So we grow and adjust. With my 8s we are are moving closer to round 2 of grade conferences. I am taking the words of my 10’s today and adjusting what that meeting looks like. More feedback is a quick change that we can make. Monthly meetings versus quarterly, these are things we will work with and adjust. What I know is students grew significantly from the start of the year to the end. Not just in their writing but in their ability to discuss their learning. In their ability to look at the messages in texts and share their thinking. I have loved not giving them a number on each assignment. I have loved seeing them grow. There are always bumps in a journey and as we see them we work to address them. Tomorrow that work begins.

Lost and Found

I have felt like the job that I have loved from day one had lost its shine lately. I am certain it is a combination of Covid and all the changes that have made the job almost impossible to recognize from the elements I loved so much. The shoulder to shoulder work, the face to face discussions. Those have long disappeared if we choose to follow the guidelines meant to at least appear to keep us safe. So alterations have been made to my style. We still are having fun, we are still reading and writing it just hasn’t felt the same. Almost like it is Bizzaro world. Similar but off enough to not be right.

We came back live after an extended time of virtual and then Christmas break (6 weeks). Monday morning I realized that this will mark the first time I had taught FULL time since March. We closed in class instruction at that time until September and in September a student teacher joined us who took on half my classes. First time full time in a long while. I was excited. I had fun things planned but in the back of my mind I was still wondering if I could find what I loved again.

I did and it was hiding with my students all along.

We started an inquiry project looking at how isolation impacts our identity in 8th grade this week. Looking at Northern communities and food access is step one. We have created grocery lists and compared local prices to those of northern communities. Students were shocked at the disparity. We had conversations about why these inequities formed, we briefly touched on the history of the Canadian government and First Nations groups and the rules established that limited the ability of First Nations groups to support themselves in traditional ways. We discussed why those rules would even exist. Students talked about power and control and how the abuse of that power was the beginning of these food costs inequities through limiting movement and erasing cultures. Isolation.

Our next step will be looking at access to clean water. Researching these cases and asking why? Listening to people talk about how these water issues impact how they see themselves. How seeing governments ignore their plight impacts their own self worth. Students are currently studying water sheds in science and this discussion will blend in perfectly.

The final steps of the project will look the real consequences of these actions and ask the students to not only look at solutions but to take action. The kids are engaged, they are outraged and the next step is helping them to be empowered to try and make a difference.

I have always found joy in teaching. Covid and restriction and all these other real and immense distractions clouded that joy often but this week I have found it again. In the inquiring minds of Grade 8 students, and don’t even get me started on the awesome Grade 10 students that decided they would be making picture books for their final assignments because we can’t forget to have fun in all this mess either.

Small Success Big Changes

Teaching in rural and largely white communities I have always worried that I was not doing enough to prepare my students for the world that will be waiting for them. I would try to have the discussions around different issues in the world. We would look at poverty in Canada, even among youth but it was hard for them to really connect with the articles because they never could see themselves. We would try to look at racism in Canada but the questions always came, “Mr.Gilson we don’t see this so why are we talking about it?” The connections to the racism around them were not seen because what was directly in front of them was white, like them. They could ignore the issues of the world and safely just talk about the Basketball game from the night before or some movie they watched. I wanted my students to see that as members of the global community there was more to see than just the happenings of our small town. More going on that they should want to push back against, they should want to address, explore and become part of the solution.

I see so often the idea presented that students need inclusive literature. Getting them to care about that literature though is difficult, especially when “their world” is not reflected in that literature. Last year however we started to have some breakthroughs and like folks say once the snowball starts rolling it keeps growing.

Last year the most read book in my Grade 7 and 8 classroom was Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, likely a close second were any and all books by Kwame Alexander or Jason Reynolds. The students in my classes were reading books that did not reflect their communities or largely their lives but they were dialled in. The waitlist was deep and so I was buying more copies. We were starting to have conversations. They were not shaking the foundations of racism by any means but they were opening their eyes to the world beyond our Welcome to our town sign.

This yeah I moved up with the kids I have been with since Grade 7 we are in Grade 10 now and something powerful is happening. Students are choosing bookclubs like All American Boys, The Sun is Also a Star, Children of Blood and Bone and they are not only seeing the racism on display in the themes and ideas of these stories but they are reacting to them. They are reflecting and writing about it. They are making connections to the world outside of our little town and talking about the change that is needed. A year ago the term white privilege outraged some in our community. It likely still will but last week I read an essay where a student discussed characters stepping out from behind their shield of white privilege to do what is right. I talked to parent who thanked me for providing a text that not only helped their child learn but also to grow. Her mom stated, “I could see the change in her because of that book”. The book was All American Boys by Jason Reynolds, a book I have been book talking for years and my kids tried it and put it aside. The events of the world and the access to that powerful story was the door my students needed to step in and really reflect.

I am going to continue to walk this path with my kids. We are going to look at the injustices facing indigenous communities all over the world and more specifically in Canada. We are going to look at the impacts of isolation on identity. We are going to use The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline as a way to open the door to these conversations as All American Boys has been the door for other conversations.

Stories have the power to teach us, to change us but we have to access to the stories. I am grateful my students are finding that access.

Going Grade-less: An Update

We are 8 months into a pandemic that really has changed how we can teach. Now it hasn’t change how many folks do but it has made some things seem less important. Back in March/April as we were told that we could not impact a student grade in a negative way because “online teaching was not equitable” and standardized tests were cancelled I realized that the assessment practices that we held so tightly to were really… pretty much trash. We were not really measuring learning, we were measuring compliance, we were measuring memorization, we were measuring who could “do school”. I had heard a lot about teachers going grade-less and I was interested in the idea but I also was a realist. It seemed like it would be really hard to do. Reading Point-Less by Dr.Sarah M. Zerwin gave me a framework and approach that I thought would be doable.

From day one we focused on feedback, we focused on determining areas that we needed to grow and the unique learners we are. We wrote a ton and talked about what we were seeing and my students writing improved. But beyond that there was this collective exhale. Grades hang above our students heads. They have never really informed us of anything. I mean really, can anyone tell me what an 83% on a paper is versus 87% how about the difference between an A and a B? With some descriptive feedback, please let me know. But this shift away from number and letters, towards conversations and reflection has been so meaningful.

We have spent the last few months building our grade-less understanding but there is always a plot twist and for me it is a report card that needs a grade attached. Thankfully Dr. Zerwin talks about here requirement to have a grade for those students moving on to University and grade conferences. So the last week or so I have been sitting down with my students to talk about how they are doing. In the past I just calculated all their grades and that was it. Now we talk, we look at the learning goals and we report on them. Students are reflecting and being honest in what they think they have earned. Do we have some bumps in the road where a student’s expectations are very distant from the reality of where they are at? Sure but not many, and when we do it is a great chance to have a conversation. Students are more aware of where they are and where they need to be and because of these chats they are learning how to get there. A Grade never served as such a powerful record of learning.

Grades were never meant to serve our students, they were meant to control them. The stress kids have to get those 90s and 100s is oppressive. They are controlled by the expectation to achieve high honours but couldn’t explain what that means. Today as I sat with students as they explained why they deserved that 92% I knew they understood why they deserve that achievement in the same way the student who self reported in the 70% range could recognize what they needed to improve on.

This work is new to me, I chose to pursue this learning in a pandemic. It has been a good choice.

Wiggle your big toe

Daily I see countless posts from my online teacher friends and community talking about the challenges of this year. The fears, the stress, the sadness, the feeling like we are drowning, like we are in the lake and just can’t touch the bottom and keep our heads up.

Lately I have been feeling very much the same. Drowning and people are on the shore just watching, telling me to just kick a little harder and I will make it out. But I AM TIRED. The constant vigilance, being worried about kids not wearing masks, not washing hands, needing to work closely with them but also wanting to keep my distance. It really has just been too much.

This weekend I was watching Kill Bill Vol. 1, I figured that some mindless cheesy Tarantino with the excellence that is Uma Thurman as “The Bride” Beatrix Kiddo would help take my mind off things for a couple hours at least. I was right. Beyond that brief escape from the reality however I also was inspired and have shifted my focus at least for a few days but maybe even longer.

If you need a bit of a background and have somehow not watch the genius that is Kill Bill I will explain. Kiddo was at one time a member of a group of Assassins led by Bill. She was trying to leave the life and the group put her in a coma when they went to kill her. Dark, I know, but bear with me. So Beatrix wakes up and after dispatching some bad guys she drags herself (legs are not working as muscles have temporarily atrophied after so much time in a coma) to what will be her escape vehicle from the hospital. She muscles herself into the vehicle and there she talks to herself. Pushing herself to just “wiggle your big toe”. I have watched this movie a lot. This line has never hit me like it did yesterday. Such a simple act but a required move before the first steps.

I immediately started thinking about why these last few weeks have felt so much more insurmountable than the rest. I don’t have ONE reason. It really is a culmination of a lot of things. I have felt like I can’t move. Weighed down. But then there is that line just “wiggle your big toe”

So that is what I am doing. Just wiggling my damn toe and that is going to be enough.

Today, the first day back after Kill Bill brought me back to a space that I could see more than just doom and gloom, I read some of a beautiful story. I visited with students and coworkers, I taught. I planned. I laughed and for a moment I felt like I could breathe. My toes touched bottom and my head was above water.

Tomorrow might not be so great. Things are hard right now but I do know today I could start by wiggling that big toe. Tomorrow I will try again.

Reach out to your friends folks, we all need each other.

Well Here We Are

In January of last year I did the “One word” deal that so many teachers seem to do. Pick that word that that you are going to have to guide you. In years past I used words like curious and brave, this past year it has been resolve. I also set some goals/dreams. The Covid hit and things kind of seemed to be put on the shelf and I took the time to learn from brilliant educators and grow as a professional.

One of the early learning opportunities that I was blessed to take part in was the Liberate and Chill online course. It was full of so many amazing educators leading discussion on different topics. One that really stuck with me was facilitated by shea martin and lizzie fortin on dreaming. Up until that point I always dreamed big but never with the idea or hope that those dreams could really come true.

Today shea posted this tweet

Their words here really hit me as I realized that tomorrow a dream that I really did think was beyond possible is coming true.

Back in January one of my goals was to present at an international conference. This was a huge leap for a lot of reasons.

  • There really are so many brilliant educators out there
  • My stage fright is intense
  • The imposter syndrome I developed last year has been/is something I am working to overcome.
  • Covid-19 ending conferences also was an issue.

So really while I dreamed that one day it might happen I did not think it was actually possible and especially this year.

Well I was wrong and a month or so ago I was contacted and asked if I would be interested in leading a workshop on creating a community of readers and writers for ILA NEXT. I still don’t understand why I was asked and likely never will really get it but I am grateful that someone would consider me for this opportunity.

Beyond that I am grateful to educators like shea and lizzie who help me see that we should dream and dream big. For educators like Mary, Kylene, Bob, Donalyn, Cornelius, Aeriale, Sara, Dr. Parker, Lorena, Julia, Tricia, Dr. Muhammad, Penny, Kelly, Cris, Carrie, Dawn, Maire and so many others who are not only amazing examples but folx who have supported my learning and teaching journey and continue to inspire me.

Tomorrow afternoon I get to take my next steps. I am terrified but I am ready.

So tonight I dream.

So Kind it Hurts

A few years ago I started my teacher Twitter journey. I was almost immediately accepted by a really nice group of educators. They talked a lot about our need to be kind, how much it mattered (it matters a lot) and how if we just move about the day doing small kind acts we will change the world. Like the Butterfly effect. I totally fell into these discussions and felt great. I was a kind teacher, I was a kind person. This would be easy.

Then I started noticing how shallow these conversations were when it came to pedagogy. How very often the books that leaned towards Kindness as a central theme also leaned away from strong practices. I asked a friend at the time why it was that none of these folks talked about substantive things, “Brent not everyone is here to learn, some people just want to feel good,” they said. That really was my sign that I needed to find a new PLN. So I did (not all new but a lot of great additions).

I started learning more not just about my first love, literacy, but also about equity, about a new to me term, antiracism. I also learned about practices that pushed back on white supremacy and the system we work in that is so saturated with it. I also started to question the Kindness Warriors. The folks that argued that watching Freedom Writers and Dangerous Minds with your class was important, despite BIPOC teachers saying that both films celebrate a white saviour narrative that is harmful to students of colour. I remember my friend Maire and I talking to a teacher and trying to explain why we should listen to these educators and we were both told to try being kind and to not attack teachers who are doing their best. It is interesting to note that more times than not those educators using kindness as a shield could also use the privilege their whiteness provides them. 

This weaponization of Kindness as a defence for anything is a danger to not only our students but also our profession. Teachers can not even raise questions anymore around the practice of others without being accused of bullying, attacking and being unkind. I often ask questions around practices I find problematic on Twitter. People share their ideas, but more and more seem to only be sharing for the back patters and starfish throwers to tell them “great job”, even when the work is mediocre at best and oftentimes problematic.

Accusations of teacher shaming and bullying and calls to “just be kind” have replaced any discussions around our practice. Students are taught to respond to bullying, harassment, racism and even assault, with kindness. We have students being victimized and told that being kind in return will teach a lesson. But what is the lesson being learned?

If you are a Kindness Matters fan and you have made it this far without closing your computer or writing me some strongly worded condemnation or decided to unfollow me or tell me we can’t be friends anymore, I appreciate your patience. I believe kindness is important. I believe using it to defend your poor practice is dangerous. I believe promoting kindness while ignoring real issues in the world harms our students. Kindness doesn’t end bullying, getting to the root of why that behaviour is happening does. Kindness doesn’t end racism, antiracist practices, tearing down white supremacists systems, and education does.

Those who use kindness to defend themselves from criticism are not kind, they are opportunists. Those who post pictures of their kind acts are not really kind, they are, as my sweet students call them, “clout chasers”. Those who will excuse their minor acts of kindness in the face of major problems as “enough” chose warm feelings over hard work.

A while back I was blocked by a person who is a big advocate for the starfish analogy. I know a lot of folks who love that story. It is nice. A boy on a beach tossing starfish back into the sea, an old man asks why he is doing it and says, “there are so many you can’t possibly make a difference and save them all” “No.” the boy replies, “but I made a difference for one”. So many Kindness folks cling to this idea that they are saving one by their one little act and that is a great start. But here is the thing:

Folks that have weaponized kindness to serve themselves, to avoid tough topics, to dismiss the concerns of others are not really committed to change, they are just committed to feeling good.

This thinking is dangerous, it puts our marginalized students in harm’s way because too many people think they too can do just a little and it will magically address the inequities. It won’t. That fact makes them uncomfortable and then accusations of bullying and shaming fly. I am not shaming I am sharing.

Take it however you like.

And like Ellen and Kindness Warriors say, Be Kind to one another.

Or you could be more willing to learn and grow. Accept that Kindness alone does not heal-it continues to harm with a smile. (H/T to CM for that last bit 🙂 )

Remember who you are

Dusting off this blog after what has been the first month of school. I spent much of the summer trying to learn how to best help my students see the world and through learning more about themselves I have hopes we are getting there. We have spent the month beginning our own identity work. It has produced some really wonderful writing and moments. Yesterday we looked at this beautiful essay by Tiana Silvas, and discuss what it made us think about and notice. My students have looked at the things they value, the values they hold and the places they are from this month but this was our first look at those who have helped us develop our own sense of self and belonging. Students discussed what they noticed and connected with in Tiana’s essay. They started building their own ideas of what lessons they have learned from the people in their lives. This start to our year focused on identity has been interesting. I have work with most of these kids for 3-4 years now. I know their writing habits and styles, I can sense their voice in their words in just a few sentences and yet something new is coming through. It is almost like the finally know themselves. They are exploring who they are and what they are learning is coming up in their writing.

At the end of August teachers around here were so focused on how we were going to manage teaching in a Pandemic that I think we thought we had to change everything about ourselves. I know my year started bumpy, I love to conference, I love to sit and talk books but the early days of this made me hesitate. I felt the mask was silly and distracted from our chats, I felt students wouldn’t participate with each other if they were forced to mask in those close conversations. I was wrong. But I didn’t realize that until a conversation with my awesome student teacher. As we were reflecting on a lesson she taught I asked her about a shift I noticed in her demeanour. Normally she was warm, friendly and patient. This lesson she was sharp, quick to correct and the kids felt it too. As we talked I asked what the difference was. She exhaled and discussed the advice she had been given to “take control” by another advisor. They had misled her to believe that control was the objective in my classroom. We talked about how she felt and she was not happy and felt as though this direction did not reflect who she knew she was as a teacher. I that moment I remembered Gravity Goldberg’s words in Teach Like Yourself around authenticity, how our students can sense it and the learning comes easy in that environment. This made me realize what was missing in my room as well, me. I had forgotten the parts I love about teaching have never been dependent on not wearing a mask, it has been about connections and conversations.

So with that I course corrected. We are talking more, I used TQE today to help facilitate a conversation around a powerful poem by a Residential School Survivor. We wrote and shared. The students in room 157 are discovering their reading and writing identities in the midst of a pandemic that takes so much from us. But it can’t take the power of literacy away, we still have those tool available, the reading and writing. We just have to remember who we are… and then show the world.