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2015 in Reflection

For years I have taken a photograph almost every day. This capturing delves deeper than photographing an object simply because I feel obligated to take a picture. Almost two years ago my dad had a stroke. During those first hours and long months after my daughter, my sister, my mom and I followed the stretcher into the emergency room, I began thinking differently about capturing moments.

Capturing moments has become a significant part of my journey. Curating and sharing has become a significant part of my journey as well. Over the December 2015 winter break, as I began to compile images and videos of the past year, I realized how much the process of capturing moments and of returning to savour them has been a healing space for me.

My previous year in review videos have been different. At times they have been out of duty to document a year. Last year I was so filled with gratitude my video paid homage to those who helped, who stepped in, who listened, and who understood the effects of such change on my family.

My video this year though is for me. It is my year-end visual reflection, my visual year-end take-away.

And oh, I learned so much.   Hope. Love. Family. Change. Strength.

 

 

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Maybe The Trees

Since I started teaching throughout each term and at the end of the year I’ve been asking students to think about and to share their ‘take aways.’ A take away is a complex notion. It is more than the one thing a student has learned; it is more than the one thing that will resonate with a student tomorrow, in a few months, or in five years. A take away is all of that and more. It is a knowing students and I search for and want to come to understand. Perhaps a take away is that care-forward piece or the restorying of our experiences piece that a student might come to be able to understand. A take away is our way of naming the experience of our story. It’s tricky. It’s different for each one of us. It’s messy. And it’s beautiful too.

For several years I’ve made certain to share my take aways with students.

This year, I asked my online learning network to share their takeaways. I had four responses.

I admit, naming the resonance of experience is akin to #lifemaking

Here’s mine.

#compassion

Okay, here’s what I tweeted:

 

2014-06-30, 10:41 AMMy Take Away from this year: #compassion I learned to listen, to attend with my heart, to listen to the story I am retelling, gently.

 

When it comes to compassion don’t all of us educators feel, in some way, that when it comes to our bucket of character traits, this one overflows?

And that’s a beautiful thing, right? We are in a caring profession.

Three years ago while working with a group of grade 9 & 10 students I had my first real glimmer of true compassion. Then, with that group, I learned to respond with kindness. We had been faced with a sticky sort of change to our classroom family. The change was made to our family. The decision was made, hidden behind closed door educational discussions and off-campus narratives. The change led to silence and the silence brought confusion and pain. Silence was not the way we were used to doing things. We were used to sharing our stories of experience. As a unit we felt like we were the very bits inside a snow globe, swirling away, and that everyone outside our classroom space were the forces shaking us.

We were tired. We were silenced and we were sad.

I spoke to this group about those months, and the experience of this story at their grad this June. I shared how one of them, one day during a silent, silent reading, just tossed her journal on my desk and said, “Enough. We will respond with kindness.” And as a family we did. We pulled together, found our voice and healed.

And kindness is a starting point. It became the switch that each of us needed to bring our snow globes to rest. But kindness isn’t compassion.

In many of those moments years ago, though we forged ahead, we had simply silenced too the stories swirling around us.

And lately I’ve been thinking about trees.

Tall trees. There are tall pine trees that line my home in the Avenues. The pines are 110 ten years old. 14 years ago, during one of the most swirling snowy moments of my life, after looking at 28 houses, I stood in the back yard of this place. The wind played with the pines. The pines sang to me. There are five giant pine that reach towards the moon. They are taller than any house on the street; they nestle me into this tiny yard and wrap me safely here. The trees sang and I was home.

Sometimes I feel love can changed the world.

Recently I heard Gabor Mate say we need to ask ourselves how it is we feel about the person we are working with when we think of what we believe possible for that person.

This spring the kids and I were sitting in our sharing circle. We were sharing in that back-n-forth beautiful way. The kids were sharing about the connectedness they have with people in their lives. I shared the connectedness I felt with my Dad. Two of the boys in the circle asked about my connection. The others listened. I remember the conversation clearly. I remember feeling tired and being abrupt with the boys. I remember asking them if their others would be there if they got sick. I mean not just visit, I mean care for them. One boy answered no. One boy met my eyes, smiled at me, stood up and tossed his journal rather too forcefully into the bucket.

I can not say if the words were like me or not. I do not care for comparisons. I am blunt, though. And I sure do care about kids; I really care about the kids that sat around the table that day. I was “Imagaining what it is like where … they become gradually conscious of what it means to make connections in experience” (M. Greene, 1995, p. 55).

At the moment I am writing a letter to the boy who met my eyes. He is in custody. We’ve been writing letters for a while.

March 26 my Dad had a stroke. And I’ve been thinking a lot about trees.

I missed some school those first few days after Dad’s stroke.

When I returned, every day, every single day, the student who met my eyes would ask about Dad. Then, he would ask me how I was doing. Most days we’d have heart to hearts about ‘family,’ commitment, friendship, loyalty, and love.

The biggies.

Those were long weeks. You know that line ‘when you’re in the room, be in the room?” Those two months after my Dad’s stroke, I wasn’t in the room. Well, not when I was at school. I was tired and sad and I think I cried a few times, sitting on the piano bench while he worked the heavy bag, or did arm curls. I liked our chats though. And I think he did too.

He asked many questions and shared many stories. I did too. I was tired. So was he. We’d both had had a long spring.

He asked about Dad every day, first thing. Did I mention this? Every day as I said goodbye, I told him how much it meant that he had asked. So many people are afraid of crisis, pain, grief, sadness… Oh, how he honoured me by hearing my story.

When Dad had his stroke Mom who lives more than an hour from the city moved temporality into my house to live with Jess & me. Mom hadn’t been to my house, not more than to sit in their van as Dad ran in, in three years. We had squabbled over my trees – out of kindness one day she had had Dad trim them – though the squabble ran deeper and taller than trees.

Its roots reverberate every time I returned to circle with students; I am a teenager again, unable to find a way to communicate with my Mom. And I so want to share the stories of my experiences with my Mom.

“We inform our encounters by means of activities later obscured by the sediments of rationality… We can only become present to them by reflecting on them” (M. Greene, 1995, p. 73).

I am so similar to both my parents. Navigating a connection with my Mom though has never been easy. As an adult, I hid behind the guise of ‘caring’ for myself, and allowing the space between us to carry forward and the years to tip toe by.

Valleys are real though.

In the evenings as I would return from the hospital my Mom, having spent every day – and every, every day since with Dad – and I would curl up on the end of her bed, sometimes Jess, my daughter, would join us and here, my Mom and I would share stories.

There was hope in the late night shadowy moments on the futon. The compassion I found that was most profoundly needed was for a sense of rootedness, with my Mom, with my family and within me.

In June Dad moved into long term care, closer to Mom, but an hour away, and Mom moved back home.

I took time one afternoon to work in my yard. I discovered that sometime during the previous two months the neighbours had cut down one of my pine trees.

Sigh. I stood on my back deck a long time. I felt betrayed. I felt lost.

Then I asked “How important is it?” & “How do I feel about me?”

I still live here. And Here is Home.

Then, I mowed our front boulevard.

When the student who smiled at me was charged and sentenced, I shared with staff the stories of compassion that I had felt from him: asking after my Dad, attending to my stories, the hugs and tears when he had returned to us months before.

And this is what I am writing to him now. Oh, and that I miss him.

And maybe this too; when I was his age and I had gotten into trouble, my Dad would take me for long walks. He would stop at every plant and share stories. I’d taste rose hips and smell sage. I would sit for long moments on the prairie, listening to the wind. I used to find this mind-numbing. Now I know that I’ve taken every group of kids I’ve ever taught hiking, listing to wind.

My Dad would say there’s a teaching there. If I’m really listening, if I’m really attending, so would my Mom. Or maybe, it’s the trees.

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Our Story, This Fall

All day today students & families & former students have been messaging with kind words of hope & support. Today, I started at a new school. Today, many of our kids started out on a similar journey.

I like this note from a former student, “University tomorrow. So excited. And nervous. Going to do the best I can. I hope your new space is going well and I know that you will inspire kids so much. Not to mention learn past boundaries that are set for you. Love you and hope you get everything from this chapter of your journey that you can, as will I. :)”

This is listening. This is our story.

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The Importance of Sharing Our Stories

Our stories have great value. I believe if I connect only as voyeur in someone’s life, it is really my stories I fail to hear. Connecting with kids not only changes their lives, it changes mine.

~

December 20, 2011 – The views to my blog soared. That day my blog received its second highest total number of views since I began sharing here in 2009. It had been almost three weeks since my last post.

December 19, 2011 –  The previous night, was my school’s annual winter concert. For the second year in a row my senior ELA students, grades 9-12, performed.

This year, however, my students embarked on a collaborative creation and knocked the community’s collective boots off.

Hurrah, you might be saying. But hold on to your hats, not everyone was cheering. A few folks were physically uncomfortable with my students’ stories, and expressed dissatisfaction!

However, the cheers resounded from my students’ stakeholders. All of my students’ parents, siblings, friends, former teachers, and many community members shared a big hurrah. And so did my kids.

And sure, after the whirlwind of different dust settled, my principal reminded me how far we have come.  For the past year and half my kids – and I – have been learning how to tell our story. It’s pretty darn amazing considering that our journey is only 16 months old.

We started with the simple typical stuff kids and teachers do: posting, writing, sharing, and inviting experts into our space to share their stories. We then spent five months learning how our experiences and places shape who we are and how we share our stories (Place Based Education). We learned to listen in hospital rooms, coffee shops, soccer fields and abandoned barns. We learned to listen to the stories of trees, rivers, wind and labyrinths where we learned stories we had never heard before.

We were vulnerable.

One afternoon in June, limbs shaking, writing pieces at the ready, we set up a mic and shared our stories in a coffee house while the world went by. Then magic happened. People stopped. People listened. People choose to connect with our stories. Some stepped up to the mic. Turns out what we had to share was good and honest, and really worth hearing. Turns out we were change makers! Turns out that by sharing we find there are heaps more stories yet to share.

And this is how we began this past September…

thanks for sharing [and] reminding me of the importance of our stories. it caused me to think about the stories of the kids we work with every day and how we shouldn’t assume anything. we might want to think that they will become nothing but everyone has potential no matter what they start with. encouraging students to tell their story helps them know their own worth and allows them to be validated by us.  ~ Lori Meyer, Superintendent of Learning, PSS210, December 28, 2011.

Kids know what they want. I aim to have classes that are differentiated and student-directed. Not a week goes by when I don’t ask my students what they need from me, from my instruction, from each other, from their learning. I try to ask about everything. There are no “elephants” in Ms. Saas’s room. “If there is something you need that I am not asking about, share it. And if we can’t talk about it in circle –that’s a rarity- then leave it for me in your journal, in my purse, somewhere, just keep sharing.”

Last September – my students announced they wanted live-streamed Open Mic Nights. They said they would host. The kids wanted to invite all the high schools from our entire division. I offered to help with the first round of invites, and off we went to visit the principal.

Our second Open Mic is scheduled for February. We have also earned hosting privileges at our city’s Open Mic, that’s set to happen in April. Since October we have shared our stories in Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, Skyping with others, and stopping in to share with elementary classes to help create a sense of the power of story. We have come to understand that storytelling is different for everyone.

Where does this all fit? My ELA 30 kids have been studying Landscape and my ELA 9 kids have been studying Family. Essentially, these are both study of personal identity and connections. Must we not continually use our social justice lens during a critical study of identity? As well, these themes mandate that students examine the events in their own lives. Offering students platforms to construct and deconstruct the language that society often uses to label students as powerless or at risk can also be the same language that students use to self-define as empowered and as resilient.

This is passion-based education fuelled by the voices of youth, and every day I am in awe, and every day I push my own sense of identity and connection with this world.

Mid-November – I received a text message. A few of my senior kids had come together and had a plan for the winter concert that would fit our diverse voices, the comfort levels of everyone in our class and the need to perform at the holiday concert without being bored. I gave my kids the lead. The next day, I sat cross legged on the back counter with the grade 9-12s around me and watched the kids do what we often do as a team: post needs and wants, design principles and find our big idea. Though my younger kids were a little hesitant, that only lasted the first period. In the end, we spent ten periods putting the project together.

10 periods for a winter concert during a departmental year? Heck ya.

The Big Idea that the students selected for their concert performance – How do you forget: a critical perspective on holiday.

All of my students in grade 9-12 were on board. All of them participated and that doesn’t mean someone simply opened the curtain. Everyone collaborated, creating multiple layered language learning pieces for the project.

The result: 21 minutes of live, timed, powerful truthful multi-media storytelling without student faces, using images, sounds, voices and the power of layering and light. The audience wept. The entire toddler-tight bouncing cramped gymnasium of an audience wept.

Prior to the presentation the kids had asked me to share about their storytelling movement, #undone. I was reluctant. It was their piece, their moment. But they asked me, all of them. What I shared was the essence of this unsolicited reflection a student emailed four days prior to our performance:

I couldn’t face it for a while but when I did it was refreshing. It was good to know that I can still become paralysed with fear because of the truth. Because of the truth in my own life. When I saw [our stories] on the wall my first reaction was how beautiful we all really are. [My classmate’s] piece was amazing. I think his secret was exactly what I needed, but the best part was I realised my classmate can be a genius if he wanted. Intelligence should not be measured by education. The pieces were personal, and I believe this way they will stay mine and show the world. I can move on, I don’t need to hold these things forever anymore. I can let go. It doesn’t paralyze me anymore… I suppose the beautiful thing about [the project] is that it should never end. We should always have those little secrets that we keep to ourselves and if we choose to share it with the world. It really can change lives, I don’t know if my secrets muster the words to change other peoples’ lives. I don’t think it will.  But honestly, the beauty of it is, that even if it doesn’t I’ll be okay with that.  ~ Language Learning Student, Mortlach, Dec 2011.

My kids made certain to keep the content school appropriate. Yet, in hindsight, I should have pre-warned my community about the potential of such an emotional event. Following the concert, I shared these thoughts with my students. Their response: unanimously no. My kids are fine storytellers. There were no cheap thrills. Their storytelling was gentle and honest.

I am proud.

The #undone project (the name my students have given to our storytelling movement) is spectacular. However there is more. The story that nudged my students into ‘telling their own concert,’ happened this fall.

Flashback to the last fall – there were three people in my principal’s office that morning: my principal, a student and myself. My principal, sat four feet from my student. I stood six feet away. I was standing with my back to the closed door. My arms were crossed. I was hot-mad, tears rolling down my face. And then my student said, “You know the truth.”

I sat down next to my student and wrapped my arms around my student, and my student, heaving with tears and pain and defeat long delayed in coming and beyond my student’s control, wrapped arms around me. We cried. We shared. We listened. We understood so much. There was fear – of life – like the likes nowhere near shared at the concert in December.

And I understood some truths in that moment. No adult had hugged this kid in a long time. I knew my principal and I were going to do whatever it took to fight for that student. I knew that those moments were the ‘difference making’ moments of my career.

And every one of my kids felt it.

“A child’s most basic psychological need is for love – to find a secure bond with at least one other human.” Larry Brendtro, Reclaiming Our Prodigal Sons and Daughters.

That means, listening to their stories. Listening to my kids means being connected with them, it means effort, it means commitment, it means being uncomfortable, and being tough, and being honest, and sometimes not having any words; it means aching along with them as they cry, and celebrating along with them as they succeed; and mostly, it means allowing the stories my kids’ share to resonate with me; it means learning from my kids.

June 1st, 2012 – With the financial support of our school division and the Moose Jaw Festival of Words, my kids, #undone, will host a Southern Saskatchewan Spoken Word Night at the Mae Wilson Theatre. The theater seats 400. The Provincial SLAM team will moderate.

We believe in each other. We believe in the power of our stories. 

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Spirit of Gratitude

It has been a stressful three weeks. I have been worried about my students, and let’s face it, I have been angry with them too. And almost everyone in our learning space has felt it. There have been moments when I have been inclined to punish my students by yanking their privileges. That would have been easy and spiteful and would have made me feel good in the short term.

The week ending October 21, I wanted to cancel our division wide Open Mic event. I wanted to pull the plug on a performance event for my group of students. Recently one of my kids said I did not look upset that Friday. That was easy, I was entertained. I got to listen to my kids step-up and succeed, and I got to spend some time with former students. But, oh you bet, inside, I was still stinging.

It has been a stressful three weeks.

We have all felt it.

This week, we had simply had enough.

It is exhausting being angry.

But I had some ideas on how to begin to mend.

I shared in my journal, then with my principal. Then, Tuesday I asked every student I teach to reflect, to meaningfully reflect, about how I could better meet their learning needs. As well, I asked every student I teach about how they could better meet their own learning needs.

Most kids spent 60 minutes answering the first question…

I went home at the end of the day angry and, well, selfish.

Oh, I sure understood that I wanted to react. I wanted to jump into the class the next day and tell my kids all the ways they have not been meeting my needs. I wanted to behave poorly. Really, really poorly.

But, I’ve been self-managing my happiness for a while now. And peace is more valuable than reaction.

So, last night as I attended an after school meeting, I listened to the people on the other side of the table share about the people, places and things in their lives for which they are grateful.  It was the weirdest after school meeting I have ever attended; I sat and I cried. I remembered that I love being an educator.

I went home and called my mom (the sound voice of motherly reason, the grandmother extraordinaire and a retired Director of Education). I shared my desire to be selfish and, I too, shared that the spark to respond went against my nature and my philosophy.

I love being an educator.

“Cori, what is your gut telling you?”

~

I cried. I wrote in my journal. I bbm-ed my principal. Then, I tried to sleep.

This morning, second period, with my principal in the room, I had each student and my principal write their name on a piece of paper. I turned the pieces upside down, shuffled them and then set them aside for a moment. Then, I told my students a few true stories. I told them stories of how I had come to find respect and trust in our learning space. I thanked my principal and asked her to step out. Then, slowly, with honesty and love, I drew one piece of paper at a time. Slow, as I read each name in turn, I thanked each student for the gifts they have offered me over the last 9 weeks. We cried. And we spent the rest of the day laughing, awash in tears, gratitude and reflection.

I love being an educator.

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When I Pause

A week ago I attended a silent retreat. The weekend marked 10 years of winter-silent-retreating. The first few years I brought my camera, my book, my sketchbook, my journal and, sometimes, my lap-top.  Today, these 48 hours of silence have become some of the best connected moments of my year, the connections becoming sacred spaces. Today, I listen.

“We can’t experience sacred in isolation. It is always an experience of connecting. It doesn’t have to be another person. It can be a connection with an idea, a feeling, an object, a tradition. The connection moves us outside ourselves into something greater. … We learn that we are larger than we thought.” Margaret Wheatley.

I’m always amazed at what I hear when I pause. 

The other day I forgot my phone at school. I live 37 km away from where I teach. As usual, I was in a rush so I didn’t return for my phone. The next day the kids teased me asking how I’d survived without my trusty appendage. “Fine,” and I meant it. I seek silence. Silence is a comfortable and welcomed- uncomfortableness, a beautiful connectedness. 

I remember an Education professor remarking about the need for a 20 second pause after asking for student feedback. I also remember another professor offering the beauty of silent reflection. In those silent spaces came the ideas to question the need to recap, allowing learning to simmer, allowing time for student reflection and offering plenty of opportunity for students to lead.

At the retreat a week ago I walked some. I hiked up into the Qu’Appelle Valley. I lay on my back and watched the sky roll by… I savoured the scent of sage, rolling it between my hands and on my cheek, and I wondered trails, wind pants squeaking. At night, I watched the lights across the valley twinkle and fade. And I thought about my mom. I’ve been wondering for a long time. I have my Nana’s hands, Wiens Women hands, hands that say I’m strong and bright and beautiful (my mom’s maiden name). I thought about my mom.

My senior Creative Writing students are busy sharing story slams. Our topic this week – Parent Traps. (Big in-take of breath) I thought about my mom and I thought about my daughter whose eyes are deep brown like my mom’s. Every women on my grandmother’s side has suffered from a form of dementia.

I’m irrationally crazy about kids with social/emotional and behavioural needs; I’ve always been excited by Alternative Education. Lately though, I’ve been thinking about advanced ELA. I am so excited about planning and teaching these enriched courses that my toenails tingle.  

My mom was a gifted consultant for the province long before she became a Director of Education.  She’s retired now. Though we chat everyday about my daughter and my students, I’ve never asked her about her work with gifted kids. After years of working to find our mom-daughter teaching-and-learning love language, mostly between us there remains silence. The hessitation is mine. Every woman. I have my Nana’s hands. So does mom. Every woman.  

In early October last year my Dad was rushed to emergency. My students had asked if I had been scared. “No, there’s nothing left unsaid.”

“There are many ways to sit and listen for the differences. Lately, I’ve been listening for what surprises me.” Margaret Wheatley.

some words

are so difficult

and i am more

 home

here

among

aspen, willow and wind

“I experience sacred as a feeling. It’s how I feel when I am open to life. Or am opened by life... I know I belong here. I don’t think about it, I simply feel it. Without any work on my part, my heart opens and my sense of ‘me’ expands. I’m no longer locked inside a small self. I don’t feel alone or isolated. I feel here. I feel welcomed.”
Margaret Wheatley.

(Big in-take of breath)

My turn…

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