Grateful for Our Circle

Our school year began on a Tuesday. We had four days together that first week, students and me. Four days.

I am a Grad Coach this year. I have my own program and many new faces alongside me everyday. The structure and design of our classes and days is different than my previous years in my school and in an Student Support role.

We began with four days. Students are with me to achieve a credit and to get the necessary supports to graduate on time.

By that first Friday things were messy. Our structure was too loose, our focus a bit too sloppy, our sense of belonging dangled on the edge.

I returned Monday and tried again. Nope.

I was not lacking the effort.

I was lacking sharing hope.

We were lacking our belonging space.

Period two Monday, I pulled the tables together. I gathered the container of rocks.

The students arrived. I asked them to join me at circle. I let them know they could return to their treasured place in the room once we had finished.

Then we defined Gratitude.

We talked of thankfulness. We talked of being grateful for coffee, food, our home, grandparents, friends, school.

I held the jar and took a rock. We each took one rock. The rock wasn’t important. The rocks determine our turn. Once we set our rocks in front of us on the table, our turn is completed. We speak in the order determined by the rocks, not clockwise, not by order or by age, but by rock feel.

From here we shared our gratitude.

In our class, we don’t do much if it doesn’t have a purpose, a curricular link. And I show students the wheres and the hows upfront. And so I did the same with gratitude.

“This week, all we are going to do is share our gratitude. I may ask why and I may not. Next week I will share a rubric and share how you will be assessed on your sharing.”

And then the rocks began to be placed. Grateful for buffalo ranching, for friends, for second chances, for home.

Just like that.

By Tuesday they had it.

By Thursday students had their favourite rocks. They began to ask after the whys, and I followed with the hows.

By Friday we pulled to circle with coffees and peanut butter sandwiches, like we had been here always. And waited. Gratitude too is hard. A student sat in tears, clutching his rock. We waited. We stayed in circle.

See. It is the circle that is sacred, that supports. That is hope.

Years ago I was teaching at an alternate school. My principal had lost her son. She returned to work two weeks later and, sitting around our sharing circle, held a rock, the word gratitude etched on one side.

“Find gratitude each day,” she had said.

That was the year dad had had the stroke. And I had ached for my chance to hold the rock. To feel safe and to cry.

So Friday we sat. Together. Together. And soon someone offered hope. Tears are welcome. “I am grateful our circle is safe.”

And a smile.

Week two.

I am grateful for our circle.

Keeping Talking

~

My school division recently launched a locally developed course, Mental Health Studies 20L. This course is designed specifically to meet the needs of learners’ in our division. The course addresses positive mental health, common mental health challenges, understanding stigma in relation to mental illness, and mental health and addictions. Teachers are nudged to take up the task of offering this course, helping students and school communities break down mental health stigma.

Hmm. I was in pre-start up meetings Monday with my two counterparts, the other ‘Grad Coaches’ in our division. Our mandate, or one of our mandates, is to help students at risk of not graduating to graduate on time.

Recently, I read Zac Chase’s thoughts about living educational mandates and the reality of living our work:

“I’m supposed to be talking about standards, though, right? Where’s my rhetoric around problems of practices, data-driven decision making, and instructional design?

What nerve do I have shunning my innovator’s mindset; deciding not to teach like a champion, a pirate, or my hair is on fire and focusing on something as ephemeral and un-quantifiable as joy.”

I want to talk about joy.

I need to talk about joy.

And while I do, we are also going to talk. About everything. And in this sharing space, talking is going to be ok.

~

We grad coaches sat together Monday mucking through the often hardwork of figuring the logistics of offering this new locally developed course with only two weeks to go before the start of classes, the often trickiness of the content, and the often tenderness of our students, and be certain, the pain of each of our own lived experiences.

The conversation was messy. We circled around and back to ideas, to plans, sifting through thoughts. And circled on. There were tears and smiles and harsh looks and gentle knowings.

By phone, we chatted with one of the course developers, clarifying the fundamental need to offer the course as an elective, allowing students the choice to engage with big ideas and potentially painful topics. This isn’t a core subject after all, it’s different.

Would we sit on it, spend the fall planning? Would we push through, bring in outside agencies, where possible and forge ahead, as an elective, having the tough talks, living vulnerable. Or would we pause, plan carefully and launch a well crafted, course next September?

~

See. This isn’t a core subject. It’s different.

~ Friday two of my former students were in a horrific altercation, one dying, illegibly, at the other’s hand. See. I am tired of losing kids.

That’s important. I want you to read that again.

I am tired of losing kids.

Many people have asked me if I knew the boys. And what they want is a storied telling. Stop. In all ways. Please.

One came to me years ago a gangly grade nine. I took him on his first outdoor education trip. He had very little. My dad scrounged together a sleeping bag, camping supplies. We were camped in a deep ravine, total backcountry kind of stuff. He ran free, like his smile was released from his belly and he was set to chase it. He smiled right through to the end of the year.

The other came to me years later. We wrote laters one summer while he was hoping to set his world on longed for path. The letters began after my dad’s stroke. He made a wooden cribbage board, and he gave it to me to share with my dad once dad was recovered. I shared stories of dad’s teachings, and of hope. The letters came written on long pieces of foolscap, remember that? Folded in half and then a third. Printed carefully.

Not a core class.

I am thinking about the ripple effect from the events Friday. The boys with partners, with babies of their own now. I am thinking deeply of the many, many, many lives so forever and unquestionably shifted.

I am thinking of my friends, my colleagues who live the pain of loosing kids

This is important.

Last year I did more than 15 suicide interventions. I am an Student Support teacher. There are six other SSTs at my school. How many kids did we talk with? Add the councillors? Now our caring and attentive staff. We are over 50. In Canada suicide is the second leading cause of death in youth ages 15-24 (Health Commissions of Canada, 2017). This statistic has not changed in 20 years. I learned this fact from the MHS20L curriculum. I feel it too.

This is important.

Tuesday my husband, Alan, asked how I am going to welcome my kids back the first day.

“Hug them.”

Wednesday, again. Again. Someone inquired about the boys.

Let me tell you. I love my kids. I can tell you something beautiful about each and every each student I have taught.

Needed.

Talk openly. Talk hard. Talk hope. Start now.

i believe

believe in….

Trust and time.

And listening. And relationships.

And belonging. And sharing stories with kids.

Their stories. My stories. And listening

to their stories no matter what.

The cat stories, the lunch stories, the suicide stories.

Staying late, arriving early. Showing up.

Saying I love you and I am proud of you, and meaning it.

Reading aloud to high school kids. Often. Writing with students.

Sharing with students. Admitting I’m wrong. Saying I’m sorry.

Putting aside what I’m doing when a student comes up beside me, to listen.

Knowing that every shared note, every piece of writing, every hello,

Is a love language.

As are the crumpled pages, stomped feet, long tears, and reluctant hugs.

Be gentle and listen deeply.

Ask questions. Remember details. Remember names.

Notice when the room settles into a silence.

Remember then to wonder why, to ask how.

Read cumulative folders.

Stand at the door. Say hello and say goodbye. Text HEY.

Ache at the so longs. Check in.

Drinking coffee, together, honoring them all.

Be open. When a student pulls me off task; do all I can to find the function.

See past the tapping, the staples, the Snapchats, the swear words, the rule-crossings.

Listen.

Trust.

Ask questions.

Sit in silence. Share stories.

Eat the left-over food the kids bring, made in Home Ec, and the baking brought from home.

Laugh loudly. Laugh often. Smile widely.

Display student work.

Say thank you. Mean it.

Cry with them. Get tired.

Get to the end of the semester, June 30-degrees-with-no-air-and-resounding-pride.

Say sorry.

Love my kids. Explain my thinking. Explain it again. And then differently again.

Let kids design the space, even if it’s messy and asymmetrical and might smell.

Try new things.

Teach what excites me.

Share what I read. Go on field trips. Explore.

Learn in a multitude of settings. Question my work. Challenge the norms. Challenge each other.

Challenge oppression.

Respond with kindness.

Ask the kids, about my instruction, about them, for feedback.

Plan with others.

Seek criticism. Reflect.

Rest.

Be grateful. Be mindful.

Share my students’ successes. Share mine.

Trust deeply.

Be irrationally crazy about kids. Breathe deeply.

Repeat.