I changed schools this fall, moving from a traditional space, teaching kids I loved and subjects I adored (ELA, Outdoor Education and Arts Education) into a different role. A role I sought. The subject areas, for the most part, have been the same. And I still adore the kids. The move was spurred in part because of my graduate journey, but truthfully, it was time for a change; I needed to know a different story of educator me.
The last four months have been different. Mess is good right?
I expected things to be different. I expected a learning curve as I moved into the role of Student Support Teacher, and I as I began my graduate research. There is much I miss about my former school, but what I miss most is feeling validated.
The educator story of me whispers that I should now be reflecting that this is an internal struggle and I should work it through.
But that’s not how I’m feeling.
In early December the one of my committee members commented that when he feels this way, he blogs.
I live in the midst of groups of kids and yet get very little time to attend to their narratives. I feel continually rushed, as though I never really get to settle-in; I feel as though I’m never really in an at-home-living space with kids, as though I’m moving to the next place, next place, and this makes me want to put my hoody up.
There are moments of gentleness though. There was a morning in early December. Our school family had suffered a loss, our Vice Principal had lost her son a few weeks before. A student, Kate (pseudonym), and I sat around our morning sharing table. Neither of us could yet manage to take off our coats. We were tired and we were sad. Kate shared about missing her brother who had died three months earlier. Our VP joined us then. We asked questions that none of us had the answers to. We cried. We laughed. We didn’t wipe away our tears with our mittens. We sat a long while until finally we joined the rest of our school family for pancakes. These are moments of such beauty. These are moments when our space becomes a curriculum of lives.
Maybe what I need is gentle time with kids, like those after-school moments and come-of-your-own willingness spaces. I ache for them.
The last day before we left for winter break Kate and I sat around our sharing circle with Joe (pseudonym). He is the youngest student in our sharing circle. Kate came up with a plan to keep the three us connected. Kate was really worried about Joe.
“Okay but this is weird,” Joe replied. But his eyes caught mine. I wondered if Kate was worried about the long two weeks away from her circle. I wondered if Kate was worried about missing her brother. I wondered if the hum from her ear buds that don’t drown out well, would be enough. I wondered, as I met Joe’s knowing eyes, if it was Kate who needed a plan.
In December, I attended my last fall term Works-in-Progress graduate group at the University. I feel like such a kid at this table. I feel as though I have little to contribute, as though the world speaks deliberately in academic babble, and I wonder if I should SoundCloud everyone so we might return and reflect on how we share. I sit on my hands. I drink tea and water and coffee, twirling a beverage between my hands and lips to keep busy. The others usually ignore me. I am grateful. Too bad I don’t wear a hoody to Works-in-Progress group, though that’s a story of grade-five-me, of school that fits that sharing space too.
Our knowing of children’s past experiences on their in- and out-of-classroom places was shaped by their storytelling as we continued to hear the numerous accounts of the experiences… As children spoke of resistance to our plotlines of a story of school composed around making spaces for lives, we knew their resistance was an expression of the lack of narrative coherence they felt between our practices and what they knew as school. Our practices were an expression of our stories to live by, of who we were. But we also knew our practices were not coherent with the practices children knew as fitting within their stories of school. (Huber et al, 2004)
At my Works-in-Progress group, we are pulled together by one of my committee members, a professor at the University, and by our common focus of narrative inquiry. The tea is good. And so are the stories. There are two of us working on our master thesis; the others on their doctorate. In December, I sat at the table feeling as I sound now, a bit bitter, feeling a bit wiser too about the role of the University in my research, in my practice, and in the lives of students and families. I tried to stay positive. There were cookies.
The group was discussing the potential of narratives in Teacher Education programs. They were only discussing the value of narratives for pre-service teachers. I almost lost my gourd. The conversation felt so… disconnected. In that moment all I could think about what a student of mine who had been arrested two days before and whose stories had often been silenced by school or told for him. I almost pounced into the conversation, “The value of narrative is when my grade ten student is doing this with a grade two student down the hall.”
Okay. I wasn’t eloquent.
I was frustrated because the people around my sharing circle, some I trust, some I don’t, all with a great deal of influence in the education world, where having what felt like yet another conversation that did not included elementary and high school students. Where were their narratives?
I cried during the rest of group and the cookies got soggy. The PhD-ers suggested I send them my works-in-progress, for feedback. It wasn’t pretty.
A few days later, after the students, staff and I returned from our daily late morning walk; I poked my head into the office to share with my VP. She was just back on half days and she was sitting at her computer, listening to the hum of the monitor, preparing to head home. She asked about my university journey. I sank into the chair she keeps beside her desk.
“You know, I have this lens. I am not going to change it. I really don’t care about teachers or administrators, and I really don’t care about pre-service teachers or superintendents, or professors. I care about kids and families. I can’t pretend I see things differently. I don’t.”
She hugged me, and she cried. I don’t think it was my words. She suggested I talk with a teacher in the division who completed his thesis and had learned much about the journey. “Talk to him, it will help.” I kissed her cheek and joined my school family for lunch.
Just as I have been silenced and labeled by the messy plotlines of school stories and stories of school, so too have the students I live alongside.
When I arrived at my new school in the fall I had heard the rumors of how others labeled the students. I was prepared for those comments. And they came. They continue to come, but not so blatantly.
I wasn’t prepared for the comments directed towards myself and other staff at the school that similarly set us apart in negative ways. It has been a different term.
The final afternoon of term, a colleague and I were cleaning up, reflecting, celebrating successes; we’d had a busy day. We had taken the kids to another school for a concert and upon return a grade nine student stated, “Miss Saas, I’m tired.” The events of the day had exhausted our school family.
It has been a different fall.
Last night I jumped into a brief Twitter chat with the Deputy Minister of Education and two university professors about measurement, standardized testing, assessment and evaluation. In the end, what I wanted to share with everyone was an invitation into our classroom, but I didn’t.
What I wanted to share were the different stories of experiences of our sharing space.
I wanted to share student narratives.
There are no pretty successes where students, staff and I live every day. I am going to write that again, there are no pretty successes where students, staff and I live every day.
Our successes sure aren’t small. And, they sure can be different too. And we need everyone to look closer; we need everyone to note that just because our world is different, it is also filed with successes.
Our successes – I am crying – are Robert Munsch Enormous in the lives of our youth. Sometimes they are so big they are like tectonic plates shifting lives and so embodied that kids bolt from school. This is success. One day this term a student slipped in from another class, walked down the hall and asked me if I would help him to learn. He shared that he had not understood the idea of a story having a beginning, middle and end until I wrote it on the board, and that he and I had to work on this during out-of school hours so no one in class would know. There was another student who hugged me goodbye because he had come to understand he needed a hug. This is success. There are the smiles of showing up, and showing up first to make coffee, and staying an entire day or understanding the sense of ditching class because for the first time, a student experiences the beauty of the middle-years pull of liking someone; these are successes. And these we celebrate.
So Kate came up with a plan.
Every day during the break we would message photos to each other and to Joe. We would keep Joe connected to our sharing space through photo stories. Some days slip by where all we send is a photo. Some days, we share a photo and a few words. Other days, Kate will ask questions and ask me to send a specific photo, or I will send a photo that connects to a story I’ve shared.
Two days ago she shared a photo of a letter her brother wrote to her while he was in jail, long before the accident that took his life. She has been rereading his letters and notes. Her messages and photos are filled with reflection, courage and sadness. “I miss him so much,” she writes, Kate who four months ago now never spoke about her loss, Kate who now finds ways to connect to others through it.
Maybe the glitter and easy isn’t needed? But I think some of it is. I don’t know. Maybe somewhere in all this messiness I am learning something about what I need and who I am. Maybe, in the tension of my graduate journey, school spaces that were once closed will come to listen, to really, really attend to silent stories like Kate’s, just as she has listened to Joe’s? Maybe when our grade ten student returns from lock-up he will share his stories of his experiences. I miss him. Perhaps, I am just not supposed to know, not supposed to see around as many corners like I did in previous years. What if the stories of experiences are our successes?
Some successes are profound.