A few days ago while scrolling through a social media site, I noticed that a student I teach had posted a photo with, what I consider to be, an offensive … Continue reading Language of Hope
I’ve been attending ACAD’s summer institute. I think I am beginning to understand something about the ways I learn and the ways that I want to learn. I am beginning to learn about what drives my curiosity to learn.
My art mentor, Alison, retired this past June. Alison is a phenomenal woman, artist and educator. I met Alison my first year teaching. I had asked to sit on our division’s Arts Council, which Alison then chaired.
During the next few years Alison and I (and others) collaborated on a multitude of projects; Alison became as much of a resource, connection, and support for me as the projects and high school arts community seemed to offer for the students in our division.
This early June this year Alison called. She shared that she had heard of ACAD’s summer institute and that she felt I would delight in being part of the learning community. I had felt a similar support from Alison when she nominated me to chair the Arts Council this past year.
I sent my registration forms to ACAD that day. The choice of what sessions I would attend was left to my students. The what didn’t really matter.
Alison understood. She wanted me to attend because she wanted me to continue to be curious.
And I was.
My fellow ACAD institute artists/educators and I have been in the studio everyday.
We are perhaps learning or perhaps relearning or perhaps re-fine-tuning skills.
I enjoy these hours and I enjoy the feedback. However, I often feel missing Alison’s reason to attend; scaffolding of skill never feels quite as beautiful as the ‘something more.’
At our noon break Canadian artists/educators share their reflections, wonderments, and art all linked by collaborative themes.
At noon my heart sings. I set aside my box lunch, leave my sketch book untouched, and lean in. Tuesday, I cried. Wayne Baerwaldt, the director & curator at ACAD shared for an hour. He spoke of work that focused on bringing community together to become intimate with art and artist, and to give voice to space and the experience of the artists.
As he shared I thought: our kids can do this!
In June, before Alison had called, I had approached several administrators, had found a location and started steps in forming a division wide high school arts collective.
I know, the potential of this space is the joyful stuff that makes me want to stroll through the city streets in the rain.
I am curious about ideas. I am curious about relearning, remaking, and rethinking. And I delight in reflection.
There is comfort in curiosity.
The new school year is just past three weeks gone.
The second week flew by; I liked almost every moment of each school day. The first week however, simply slogged along; I felt frustrated.
I’m teaching at a different school this year. I am no longer the ‘single story’ high school ELA, Arts Ed and Outdoor teacher, though I am still responsible for these subject areas. My first week was filled with moments when I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. This year I work with students to meet their personal goals, to find hope as our school phrases it; as I see it, to come to honour students’ narratives as stories to live by. Sometimes our days are so busy I don’t feel the end of week approach. Other times there are only a few of us and our space changes frequently; we move at a gentle pace that best fits the story of us. We laugh often. We talk often and we share often.
My transition into this space hasn’t been easy (I wonder every day about how our kids feel as they live this transition. I requested this transition.) There are people and aspects about my other school that I miss very much. Of course, I miss the kids. I miss our regular (and our inquiry based learning never felt ‘regular’) ELA periods and discovery. I miss after school chats and moments when I could find a private silent space during the day just to myself.
That first week I was hit hard by all the missing stories. As well, that first week I also allowed my ego to get the better of me. Those first few days I took to heart comments and questions from others as to how I had come to have my new teaching role and whether I really understood the ‘kids’ I’d be teaching. By mid-week, I had begun to doubt my skills. Worse, by mid-week I had begun to doubt myself. I had stopped honouring my own stories of attending to youth.
However, towards the end of that first week something beautiful happened.
I invited students to gather and I read with them.
I opened a book I love and I read. While I read, I shared with our kids about the story and about myself. As well, I talked with our kids about what I was sharing. I asked our students questions. I paused often. I listened often and soon our students asked questions. I listened. I read, I reread and I read on.
The story didn’t fix everything. However, that moment sure offered a beautiful piece of awareness for me. More importantly, as I listened to our kids make connections, think about the stories I’d shared, and then share their own narratives, and I began to see our kids.
My fear or sadness or worry had prejudiced my instruction of our kids.
Finally, that afternoon, sitting in circle around our table, I felt like I was coming home…
There is this way with narrative: once heard, it can not be unheard.
That afternoon, we attended to our stories. I was beginning again to understand my privileged lens; I had begun to let go of assumptions. Through narrative we had begun to puzzle our way into the space of where we could become curriculum makers.
Our storying space is becoming…
We are slowing attending to our stories. Sharing narratives takes time. I understand that I long to rush, rush, rush into our space and share. But this is my way. This is my voice. I understand too that my story is important. So I share as well. But I am (re)learning to listen here with this new family, learning to attend to different narratives and to trusting a new place.
When I was a child I remember overhearing my educator parents share school stories about the kids in their midst; “Parents send us the best kids they have.”
The next day after I read I looked around the room and realised that I was in the midst of the best kids. Since that moment, I have offered our students every ounce of beauty in me. I have extraordinary expectations for kids. And our kids know this.
The second week flew by. The third week I began to push, to listen and to share.
I am learning that the more I know our kids the more joy I find here.
I am learning that beauty and sadness and joy are part of my teaching story.
These last three weeks I (re)learned that I belong to a family, and the story I share of myself is connected to this family.
I am pretty sure the students are supposed to be learning, but it is my head that hurts from all I am (re)learning.
Sunday afternoon as I sit here in our classroom-storying space, I feel that (re)learning that I am connected to a family is sure a fine story to live by.
This week I’ve been taking my ELA accreditation. I came in expecting to be challenged. I also came in uncertain what we’d actually be doing.
I’m moving schools in the fall. This week, Miranda, the senior Math/Science teacher, is taking her accreditation as well. This morning we had an activity to plan an inquiry unit – Yah, I know. The idea is a bit ridiculous since we don’t have learners with which to pull the big idea, ask them what is important to them, wonder about what they might want to discover – that took us an hour. Miranda and I went together deliberately. We aren’t just colleagues, we are friends. We have had every prep together over the past two years and often we’d meet and game-plan how best to meet the needs of our students. What these meetings were was a support session to get us on the same page as the high school team. What these meetings were not was a gossip and pity party session where we said negative things about kids and families.
With my move, Miranda and I are saddened and stressed over how we will do-what-we-do without being able to have our weekly check-ins for kids, for our methodological, our pedigocial and our philisophical needs, and for the climate of care in our spaces.
So today, we chatted with the two other educators in our group during the planned activity as we talked through an interdisciplinary inquiry piece.
And it was fun!
I liked that in forty minutes we had something that each one of us wanted to do, and to learn about. Right then! One member of our group said, “I’m so glad we did this. It’s just simple, and maybe it’s not true inquiry but I finally know where to begin.”
That’s big stuff. Important stuff for kids.
How come we don’t do often do activities like this at division PD meetings?
Afterwards it was lunch. Miranda and I sat in the sun and, just as we had done almost every time we are together, talked about teaching and learning. Though today, we talked about ‘what if?’
And interdisciplinary inquiry based learning.
Miranda and I loathe the winter concert. We are required to have our kids participate. On the positive side, it is a month when we work together, though not really team teaching. We lose almost a month of learning; we lose a month of engagement. Let’s be honest, this is true.
In the end, the product is beautiful but the process is painful. Arg! This is the exact opposite of everything I believe and hope for learning to be.
Heck, I don’t even care about a product.
I just want to know that the kids are learning and wondering and discovering and thinking of news ways to learn and to wonder and to discover with their learning. Product is an end. Learning isn’t finite.
At some point, Miranda and I asked ourselves why we didn’t try teaching collaboratively last year. We could have chunked inquiry units into three hour blocks – she’s Math and Science in the time table, and I’ve ELA. The kids could have transitioned between us, deciding where they wanted to be. Deciding just as they do most mornings. They do this anyway. This is why Miranda and I check in; some kids work best with me, others with her. It’s just the way.
Then we began to go back to the inquiry unit from the morning. We began to invision our kids living that inquiry process in our school space, in our common classroom spaces. We kept talking about kids. And then I said, “What if we had done this with the 9s & 10s too? What is it about inquiry that really pushes us? Challenges?”
We’d possibly need time for the division mandated initiatives. Between us, we’d need time for assessment. Easy. We could send a message to the other person to arrange a time to keep a specific group(s) of kids in a space for specific work. We could work in teams with sets of kids. If I or the kids need or want whole group read alouds, for example, we can just set that up. Be flexible. We just kept thinking it could not be more planning than what we did last year.
So why didn’t we change our instruction with the high school kids towards using a team interdisciplinary inquiry model?
Miranda admitted she had been worried about the departmental exams, about covering content. Won’t it be nice to be able to discover the content in a meaningful way, in ways that fit the needs of our kids because that horrid unrelated assessment won’t be looming at the end? Is it possible not to teach, in some way, to that kind of assessment? (If you missed my sarcasm that was redundant)
I didn’t approach Miranda because I was busy, ‘in closed-door-mode’ with a mammoth near yearlong inquiry project with the 6, 7 & 8 students. And I was busy with grad classes too.
We both agreed. The reason we didn’t change, we just didn’t think to ask.
In many of our undergrad courses, we would take three months to plan units that never saw the light of day in our living learning spaces. Today, sitting in circle, in 40 minutes, the four of us as learners, storied our ways of knowing into a beautiful interdisciplinary discovery unit.
Much has changed.
And we need to be reminded to keep it simple.
We need to remember that we are good educators. We need to remember we are busy educators.
So what now?
I can’t go back to my former school. And I like my new school. Change is difficult. I need to begin with big ideas. I need to sit down with my new colleagues and say, “I have this idea. I’d like to try to team teach using an inquiry based learning.”
I don’t know where we are going. I don’t know how we’ll assess it. But I trust my staff and my administrators.
I trust the process. I trust it will be messy and take time.
I trust that we’ll figure it out.
Miranda looked at me, ‘Do you think the new teacher will want to team teach?”
What a great question!
Last week was exam week.
I teach students in the senior English Language Arts. I don’t assign traditional final exams.
Around here, we have conversations.
Don’t get me wrong. Students in my classes still learn the necessary skills. They know how to write essays, craft solid topic sentences and weave together persuasive arguments. These are skills. We practice skills often in class. In fact, sometimes, sometimes, we even practice the skill of beloved test-taking. However, I don’t torment kids by making them prove all their skills all at certain times when all of them are under pressure.
In fact, what I ask kids to do is become, along with me, “an integral part of the curricular process,” (Clandinin et al, 2006). The evaluation process around here is for the high school student, grades 9 to 12, to have conversations with a key stakeholder. Afterwards they have a conversation about that conversation with me. I’m doing graduate work, and the Student Led Conversation (SLC) is the most comprehensive final exams I’ve witnessed.
Each year, in September I introduce our final relational narrative assessments and the way in which the students and I will be using them in our classroom and throughout the term. The students and I capture most of our learning, or we try to, in two places, in paper portfolios and digital portfolios. As part of the student-led conversation at the end of the term, we reflect on our learning. There is a practice conversation mid-way through the term. The kids spend 20 minutes leading a conversation and sharing their learning with a key stakeholder – usually a parent or guardian (although about 15% of the kids choose our principal) – and then another 20 minutes in post-conversation with me.
Our SLCs have evolved over the years. I’ve blogged about them a few times, here and here. When I first began SLCs, I chatted, not really allowing the kids to lead, certain my voice was necessary. Now I sit on the periphery and take pages of notes, sometimes film, sometimes both.
In the beginning the students didn’t reference their formal curriculum either. A couple of years ago I spent a week in the summer, writing and prepping for classes. I was sharing SLCs with a former Director of Education. She calmly suggested that if she were my director, she’d insist that the students have the language – that simply celebrating their successes – though lovely – wasn’t enough. She was right. I wasn’t keen on the formal curriculum driving the conversations though; there had to be a middle space. Today’s students not only use the curricular language, but students are in conversation with their formal curriculum. Today’s students are curriculum makers in class where they, as Ellsworth states, “seek, in other words, new ways of knowing that also transform knowledge, self-experience, awareness, understanding, appreciation, memory, social relations and the future,” (2005).
Conversations are who we are, after all. (King, 2003).
The last day of exams, because of bitterly cold temperatures, the busses didn’t run. Many students, keenly responsible for and proud of their learning, messaged me and quickly rescheduled their SLCs. The next day was a teacher preparation day. A student, Trent (pseudonym), arrived for his rescheduled SLC at 9:00 am along with his mom.
Trent arrived dressed for his formal presentation. He is in grade ten. This is his second year doing SLCs. He arrived wearing his best black Stetson and his dress cowboy boots. His mom was beaming. He arrived prepared for his final.
When this student began sharing at SLCs a year and half ago, he read from the curriculum pages; his mom nearly fell asleep. Watching this early sharing was painful. Back then, we discussed the SLC at the post-conference and we talked about the process of prepping for his SLC and why thinking critically and creatively about our learning is important. When kids come to own their learning, to value what they do and how they create, and how they share, they become aware of the pedagogy of their place. This “is the force that created the experience of learning self,” (Ellsworth, 2005). Here, students begin to see the beauty in not only thinking critically about their lives, but also creatively. In this space students are able to understand they are their stories, this is their story to live by. Here, SLCs become ‘pivot places,’ and serve as a “vehicle through which we come to know differently,” (Ellsworth, 2005).
Friday morning, at first glance, it appeared Trent began simply by sharing a product, a digital storytelling summative piece he’d created. However, Trent was gentle in sharing. He introduced the piece, the criteria and then expanded on how the piece fit the indicators. He then storied – his voice and reflection on his learning filling the room.
He didn’t stop there. He had crafted a 20 minute conversation with his Mom. He spoke often of the ways he’d failed during the past five months of his Language Learning course and what he’d learned from those experiences. He shared, responded to her comments and shared more of his work, weaving his curriculum into conversation and pulling his Mom into conversation with his learning, his successes, his failures, the formal curriculum, our lived curriculum and his learning journey.
His Mom had the language now too; she’s been at every SLC alongside Trent. She isn’t just a stakeholder in his life, but she is a curriculum-maker in our class too.
Our space is beautiful; “The experience of the work is critical to its understanding,” (Ellsworth, 2005). Clandinin et al ask us to rethink formal curriculum into a “curriculum of lives,” (2006), a curriculum that includes the voices of families and kids, that is led by real stakeholders, our students using their own narratives.
During post-conference, what did I ask Trent?
What went well? What would you like to change? Interestingly, the one area he missed, and a minor area too, was that he’d not introduced his Mom. Sure, some students find introductions redundant, even ridiculous. Trent reflected, “You know Ms. Saas, I forgot to introduce my Mom. I went right to the computer to set up. You know my Mom so well that the two of you started talking and I forgot. I was formal all other places, and I transitioned into the conversation and out of the conversation, but I forgot the introductions.”
And he did forget, in the moment.
Here’s the thing: he also didn’t forget.
The beauty of narrative and reflection – no exam allows space for the “Oh, I wish I’d said that!”
Trusting spaces do. Conversations do. Trusting conversations are the “very expression of potential,” (Ellsworth, 2005).
At the end of every conversation with the stakeholder, the student usually asks if the stakeholder has any questions. The student ends by sharing the student’s course take-away.
At the end of the 20 minute post-conference I generally ask students to share yet another take-away, one a bit different, perhaps one about SLCs.
The weeks leading into and during finals are difficult. SLCs are not easy. Not all the kids have bought in. The in-class preparation is intense. The time spent with kids during exam week is intense; I spend 45 minutes with each high school student enrolled in ELA, and I teach grades 9 – 12.
I believe in a curriculum of lives.
A few kids showed up to SLCs unprepared, and felt they could ‘wing’ it. I know this isn’t unique to my courses. I know that down the hall in the Math and Science room, these same stories are told about the students’ lack of preparation for the traditional exams.
I remember that Director of Education saying to me those years ago, “Where is the evidence of their learning? Do their parents understand it and can the student explain it?”
Yes. I believe all the curriculum makers in the room can.
In our learning place an interesting thing happens; I learn too. And I can’t hide my growth; just as Trent cannot hide his. Often my principal is in the room. This is good. She sees the good and the bad and the beauty that exist in the middle. You know what? I feel it. In this post, I am trying to express it. I know students are beginning to share it.
I believe in a curriculum of lives.
Trent is in grade ten. One of the slides of this digital presentation was about SLCs, “Last year I would have never imagined sharing my school work with my Mom. Now I am able to read my poetry at 4H. Imagine what I’ll be able to do once I am in grade 12.”
A curriculum of lives.
The best part of my world is being able to share this space with Jessy Lee, my daughter. She amazes me. She is my best support and my loudest advocate. She is almost 16 years old, an avid reader and a published author. These last few months I’ve watched her craft her first novelette. Okay, not her first long text, but her first fully researched well thought-out and stressed-over text. Watching her live this process I’ve come to remember a few things: she’s passionate, she’s resilient and she’s the best teacher I know.
This past summer while I crammed my-brain-full-of-often-regurgitated-goodness-don’t-think-for-yourself-articles, my daughter was living her craft. She attended Sage Hill Teen Writing experience for young writers where she learned that often the best things to write about are the farcical events from personal experience. At the end of that week Jess, my sister and I attended Saskatchewan Festival of Words. While each of us had full passes and we all snuck off on our own during the day to savour our favourite authors and genres, we met up during larger sessions. While the three of us ate lunch that Friday in July, my sister and I were quite downcast, missing Don Kerr’s noon reading from the previous year that reminded us of our spunky Nana; my sister and I simply braved Douglas Gibson, a publisher. But Jess was riveted. She stayed afterwards and chatted. She nabbed the book I’d purchased – of course I’d purchased Gibson’s book. He’s Munro’s publisher, and all things Munro must come home, to be read dozens of times and alter my perspectives of self, of relationship, of faith and of conformity – and Jess had Gibson sign the book.
“That’s so me. If he can do that, so can I.” Jess stood fierce. Her soccer nickname is Shin-Kicker and the glaze of her eyes as she then gathered Maureen Jennings’ books deposited them in front of me and strode out the door to Jennings’ session had nothing on any game play. She’d simply made up her mind.
By late August the characters had come together. The plot was beginning to form. We’d go for long car rides, her forgoing the chance to soak-up time behind the wheel prior to her driver’s test to hold me captive to discuss characterization – Can you envision them being friends? Would you do this? – and setting – What do you mean this feels like Alberta? Well that’s just wrong. How? Oh, okay, so the river needs to run nearer town; I’ve the town mapped out. This doesn’t make sense if the rail line came through Saskatchewan only a few years before the murder – and then we’d make yet another pass through The Avenues.
I began receiving texts on Fridays last Fall:
Take your time, I want to write.
Why not go out for supper with friends, there’s some research I need to do.
In her clothing class she longed for a research project in the time period of her story. Dinner became filled with lengthy stories dancing between friends, soccer and detailed descriptions of 1910 footwear.
She read all Jennings work. We watched the Murdock Mysteries over and over and over.
And she wrote. I’ve never seen anyone so focused.
This summer at the Festival she had listened to Terry Fallis share how he had published his novel online with much success chapter by chapter before the novel had been picked up by a publisher. This had happened before Fallis had submitted his work for the Leacock and had won.
Though Jess has been published traditionally, she wanted to try publishing her own story online. Last summer she expressed that if Fallis could do it, so could she. Not much daunts Jess.
And she understood she needed this online perspective. After all, she’s going to open her own publishing house. Ask her, she’ll tell you.
So, by last November the novelette was crafted, printed and we were back to driving around. The jaunts became longer. Much coffee was consumed. We visited many small towns hours away.
All of this and she plays competitive soccer five nights a week, writes to perform spoken word and there is school too.
The point? She is living it!
I’ve heard writers, friends, family and educators say that the difference between good writers and great writers is that they write. But I am beginning to wonder if the difference between writers (all of us) and those (kids) who grow up to publish great writers is that they have been taught the skills to create with minimal support, they seek critical feedback without pause, they envision themselves as becoming successful and, most importantly, they find great personal joy in the process.
Now, imagine if all our learning spaces might be like this…
It’s nearing close on winter break. I have been reading my twitter feed. Often, this time of year I have read about peoples’ tensions about businesses staying open. But it was open movie cinemas and late-night coffee shops that were family to my Dad while he was in his teens. It was these places that mattered during the long days of the holiday season when my Dad’s friends had family and warm homes, and what my Dad had were the folks in the stores and the warmth of coffee shops. I’ve written about this before.
This Fall two of my Dad’s sisters died. The August before my Dad’s grade eight year, he walked away from the family farm choosing to make a life of his own. (There is more to his story. Come for coffee, a campfire, a hike. In time, if you’re lucky, my Dad will share the details.) For years my Dad lived in an abandoned car on the outskirts of town and when the weather was poor he took comfort with caring families and in the church basement. My Dad was homeless throughout his high school years; he was homeless here, in a small city in our idyllic Saskatchewan where people just don’t allow things like this to happen, where people take care of each other… But people knew, his family knew and my dad kept telling his story.
Today, these similar stories still stay silenced.
My Dad put himself through school. More than that though, he stepped away from his abusive family and began to tell a new story.
Dad values love, family and learning. He walked away from his family so he would have a shot at these things. Dad knew he wanted these things at the age of 14. He was courageous enough to seek them then too. Dad is my hero. But not just for his past. Dad is a listening parent and the best, kindest teacher. I know, I have spent time with his students.
When I was a girl, my friends were often the kids on my Dad’s school teams. The boys on his teams were my brothers, his school kids were the kids I hiked the Qu’Appelle alongside, pulling wood-ticks off each other and the kids I played basketball with on Saturdays on the crumbling courts outside our schools. Today, when people my age get a far-away look about them, stare at me a bit too long, I usually know what will follow, “Is your Dad Al Saas?”
This holiday break, I was sitting on bleachers watching my daughter play soccer. A colleague stood beside me resting her back, her body swollen with pregnancy. She shared how she had wanted to take her kids cross-country skiing, but was just too tired. That she had learned to love skiing because she had a teacher in grade six who would load the class into his big blue station wagon, on top of the skis and take kids skiing, not returning until well after dark. She chuckled. When I told her that was my Dad, she pulled herself up onto the bleachers and sat with our shoulders touching. Later, at supper, my Dad told us stories about her skiing adventures and how she was a great storyteller; he remembers all kids.
I love that when I began coaching junior basketball, my Dad was there. It had been years since I’d played ball, I knew I needed help. That first year not only did the wee junior boys’ team make it to districts, we made it to conference. My Dad was at every game. Before the final game when Dad walked into the gymnasium the boys stopped warming up, walked over to Dad and shook his hand. He mattered. It is my Dad’s stories that the senior kids now share with the younger kids. It is my Dad’s ways of living and being with our own stories that the kids and I have come to understand is how we are curriculum makers in our learning-space.
This Fall, my Dad lost two of his sisters. Their loss resonates. These past few years, Dad’s heath continues to be fragile. Last year was the last time Dad was able to attend of our class’s Outdoor Education/Adventure Education field trips. In the classroom learning space, we leave nothing unsaid. Learning is messy, relational narrative work; life is messy; we leave nothing unsaid. My Dad is the kindest and best of men. Every decision he has made has been to put others before him.
Before you judge that in my Dad, pause – when he was 14 years old, more than 60 years ago, that same young man sat in a cinema for many years on Christmas Eves alone and held true to the that dream. My Dad has spent his life honouring stories, listening to stories, honouring his family, honouring kids’ voice, honouring me. And he did this with kindness.
Leave nothing unsaid. Listen. Respond with kindness.
When my Dad walked away all those years ago his actions gave voice to the silenced family stories in his home. His life as the kind of father and the kind of educator he has been has continued to give voice to silenced stories. After my Dad left home, my two aunts remained connected with my Dad. They loved him, and understood the need to retell his story.
Leave nothing unsaid. Listen to stories. If there is no space for your stories to be honoured, create one. Find a key person in your world, find a teacher, find someone you can trust and allow your stories to be heard. If not, find a cinema or a coffee shop and know, there is someone, this time of year, as always, who has a story. Leave nothing unsaid, lean over and begin.
Remember, that someone was my Dad. That someone is me. That someone is you.
Leave nothing unsaid.
This is our new year.