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.

Time to Dream

When the COVID closure first began I think so many of us really didn’t know what our next steps would look like. The inequity had a million spotlights shone directly on it. Many responses began with we need to do something and slowly tapered off to we need to HOPE things will get better. Those responses really aggravated me, hope to me was like sitting with cookies in the oven without a timer. Sure we might time it right but we are likely going to burn the cookies and NO ONE LIKES BURNT COOKIES. We have to do more than HOPE.

Around this same time I took part in the Liberate and Chill online learning experience. It was a spectacular opportunity to learn from amazing experts. Two of those folx were lizzie fortin and shea martin. These amazing educators talked to us about dreaming. At the time I was struggling with this “magical hope” concept but I remember both talking about the idea of radical hope and freedom dreams and I realized that many who speak about hope and dreams are not talking about it as some magical thing that will just happen but that it is that commitment to want better and work towards it, yes work.

I use to talk a lot about how I hoped one day we would have some great PD opportunities in Canada. shea and lizzie helped me see that working towards that dream was possible. This week we held our professional development event that brought incredible educators to Alberta teachers. We learned so much and came together as a community in large part because of a dream that I so desperaely wanted to work towards. It may seem trivial, a conference, but it was powerful. Over two days I watched people find connections as we try to improve our practice. I saw people who have always wanted a chance to present take the stage. I learned about bias and representation and COMMUNITY. We shared our stories and talked about the needs our students will have when they return to us and how one of those needs will be for us to stop worrying about them being behind and to meet them where they are and build where we stand. So many amazing speakers that I really could only dream to bring to Alberta teachers agreed to lead our learning. It was a powerful learning experience for me and I hope it was for others.

As I sat and reflected yesterday, as it all ended, I immediately thought about how I might bring this to my class. What lessons did I learn that I wanted to pass on to them? And in the end I decided I want to help them dream to.

To do this I will have to put that learning I so appreciated to into practice. I need to build my students up, help them discover their stories, provide spaces free of oppression, to help them feel a part of the community of our school, to know they are seen as their whole selves. When this happens, when the barriers are made weaker, we have more time to dream. To explore those ideas that excite us.

I want this for my students this year.

I want us to be safe.

I want us to be healthy.

I want us to learn.

I want us to grow.

I want us to dream.

Dreams come true when we work towards them.

Maybe my next conference we will be sitting and learning from shea and lizzie and so many others.

I can dream 🙂

Teachers should be paid millions

This was said so many times in March and April as we shifted into distance learning. Teaching is hard, planning is hard, actually let me correct that, Good teaching is hard. I can print off piles of worksheets, fined some youtube videos to make kids watch as “instruction” and call it a day but that isn’t really teaching.

By May I remember seeing less and less posts about the great job teachers were doing and more and more posts about how people just thought kids needed to go back to schools, despite knowing nothing about the virus at that point. By June there was a lot of “Really what are we paying teachers for if kids are not in the classroom?” So that million dollars was out the window I guess.

And now as we hit August and some are returning to school full time the public seemingly have upped the ante by saying not only teachers should be back in the building teaching full time but that we should do so without proper safety precautions. How we went from teachers deserve millions to you can’t wear a mask because it will make my child uncomfortable has my head spinning.

This is the first time in my career that I have felt I have very little value in the public eye. It has been eye opening but it shouldn’t be surprising. Peoples concerns tend to shift with the wind.

When we look at education when Covid-19 first entered the scene a lot of questions around equity came to the surface for some, mostly because it was the first time their privilege was challenged. For others equity has been and will likely always be an issue they champion and fight to address. Once governments magically found money they didn’t have before to provide laptops and hotspots to students those newly awakened Equity experts went back to their comfy life of writing education books with very little actual substance while teachers who had been doing the work long before Covid-19 continued to push and fight for students. This was followed by the police brutality that lead to the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others with the spotlight being put on racial violence, Antiracist teaching and #blacklivesmatter. Again we saw the immediate flood of people calling for change, posting selfies with their protest signs, changing their Twitter bio, appointing themselves antiracist because they read White Fragility and planning their books to write despite only caring about these issues while they are in the spotlight. How do I know they only cared because of the spotlight? Because they stopped talking about it after two weeks.

This is common, immediate discomfort forces action and as that discomfort lessens so does the advocacy for change among those new to any cause.

And now we hit September. We are going back to school and this has always been a time of excitement for me. It still is a little bit but largely it is a time of trepidation. The unknown. Watching jurisdictions in North America open and shutdown within weeks because of Covid-19, we have forgotten about equity, many have moved on from #blacklivesmatter . We are now those maskless lunatics yelling in the face of police officers protecting the Governor of Michigan a few months back (none of them were assaulted or tear gassed by the way, like the violin protest in Colorado that was tear gassed). We (generalization) as a society are putting our need to resolve mild discomfort before the safety of students and teachers. Update on those maskless protesters that were protesting masks, many caught Covid, some died.

Our society tends to place comfort over equity and justice. If “I” am not impacted then we can figure out the rest. But we never figure out the rest. We leave those facing it to figure it out, often with minimal if any support and this usually impacts BIPOC families overwhelmingly.

A few years ago I saw a story that talked about a school that was on a reserve in Ontario that had not had running water for years. Many will blame mismanagement of funds by local leadership and they might be right but why wouldn’t the Federal government step in? They might say “Well, Treaty agreements keep us from getting involved. I teach history, treaty agreements have never kept white governments from infringing on the rights of indigenous people anywhere in the world. So the real answer is they did not think they were worth the investment. I imagine the same can be said for many schools in many areas around the world. We dismiss them after a while, our attention turns to the next big thing and most move on leaving those suffering to suffer and easing our collective minds because we have done the bare minimum.

Today I woke up angry because I see friends dismissing the concerns of teachers. I became angrier as I tried to sort through why the concerns around teacher safety and health are easily brushed aside as complaining, or lazy, or insert any of the other comments I saw this morning from parents in this province on a post that announced masks would be mandatory in Alberta schools from grade 4-12 when distancing wasn’t possible. Spoiler Alert distancing in schools is rarely possible. Parent after parent outraged that teachers want to do everything possible to keep themselves, their loved ones and their students safe. We are “afraid” we are “exaggerating” “enough is enough this needs to stop and they need to get back in the classroom and teach”.

We are not afraid, we just don’t want to get sick.

As our CMOH states often this virus isn’t gone and yet so many are choosing to believe it is. Or maybe it is that we just don’t matter enough to some. This week I have watched friends in the States resign their positions because their health was more important to them than a job. It was brave.

I don’t know if I am brave enough.

Then today our government accused teachers of being biased and teaching based on ideologies. They may as well have said we are trying to brainwash kids. They can’t back up these claims because they are false but people will believe it because after all teachers only should have been paid a million dollars in March.

Now we need to just get in there and teach.

When writing unlocks the doors

Today was a fantastic day of learning as we had some live sessions for IREL and had a chance to have some great conversations with educators. We have been talking about how race impacts us this week spending time working on the internal racial understandings. Today as part of this work Tricia Ebarvia and Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul took us through a series of mentor texts written by various BIPOC authors. When studying mentor texts we looked at the style in which the author writes, the content of the piece and then were given time to craft our own writing based on the ideas that came to use. This is a practice that I have used in class a lot. Looking at different pieces of writing, short stories, picture books and utilizing these mentors to assist our writing. Today thought a different thought came to mind as I wrote.

I cite Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s work often. I am a true believer in the idea of students needing to see themselves and others in the books they read, that books serve as Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors. Mirror reflecting themselves, Windows as a chance to see into the lives of others and Sliding Glass Doors inviting the reader in. This last year we talked about it a lot in class, we used this language as we looked at different stories. Students had some struggles differentiating what was really different for them between Windows and Sliding Glass Doors. Today as I wrote and occasionally struggled to write I think I came across something that will help my students as it certainly helped me.

The opportunity to read a piece was excellent, it gave me that window. Writing my own text alongside the mentor text however took me into the story. The writing was the key to open a door that I could step through. While I couldn’t connect to these stories as lived experiences I could connect to elements. Tricia named this for us as learners and instructed us to look at phrases when we couldn’t connect. To look for that spark.

I am excited to continue to build on this work. I love that today I walked away with what I feel are both usable tools and also new understandings of established practices in my classroom.

Day 3 learning and reflections from IREL20 🙂