17 months ago I successfully defended my thesis. Shortly afterwards, I sought a new role. I also felt, in a way, that I had earned one. No work change happened … Continue reading My Plan
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.
I am grateful for our circle.
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.
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.
Talk openly. Talk hard. Talk hope. Start now.
“I tell stories not to play on your sympathies but to suggest how stories can control our lives, for there is a part of me that has never been able to move past these stories, a part of me that will be chained to these stories as long as I live,” (King, 2003.)
Mid-morning Saturday, a friend sat at the graffiti-covered piano in the classroom and tapped out a melancholy tune, “I am afraid of your past.” The words weren’t meant for me; they were sung in response to the tensions that live in attending to stories.
He shared stories of his childhood mentor and shared stories of his summers at the lake. What resonated were his messy stories.
Long ago a student had sat at that same piano and shared similar stories, his hands too lingering over the piano’s out-of tune keys…
This is a story I know.
Several years ago as part of an identity project a student, James, painted a piano with graffiti. His father wanted him to study classical piano. James wanted to compose his own music. More than that, James wanted to write poetry. The piano is covered with James’s story and his poetry. The piano’s wooden shell is pulled off to reveal its keys. The piano was one way James found to give voice to his story, to come to honour his own story. When he graduated he entrusted me to continue to care for the piano.
This week I’ve been feeling the messiness of my own piano stories.
Saturday night, while my grade-eleven daughter, Jess, and I relaxed at my Mom’s and Dad’s home, I received a message from James; he was having a difficult weekend. For many folks around here, last weekend was Thanksgiving, a time of gratitude and of being with family.
Though James has left home, his stories linger. Though James has spent a great deal time thinking deeply about his messy stories, coming to honour his stories, he is still learning to retell them.
Saturday he messaged, asking for the second time since I’ve known him, “Don’t give up on me.”
I am beginning to learn that coming to retell our stories into stories to live by takes time.
I remember when I first began to learn the depth of the messiness of James’s story. I can still see him standing in the doorway, a big kid aching to live a story of confidence, asking me to do more than hear, to do more than listen. James was asking me to attend to his messy stories.
James was asking me to honour him. And he asked me not to give up on him.
This was a request for trust.
What I learned as I came to attend to James’s stories, I learned that I was at the same time, learning how to honour my own stories. “The curious thing about these stories was I had heard them all before, knew them, in fact, by heart.” (King, 2003). For so long I had forgotten to listen to my own stories.
Together, James and I were life making.
Friday I sat alone in a car dealer’s office. I was about to purchase a new-to-me car and I was wiping away tears. Six week previously, my car had been stolen. Weeks afterwards I had settled with insurance. The day before the car dealer, on my way to an educational conference, I stopped at the salvage yard to gather my personal items from the retrieved car.
The person at the gate warned me about what I’d find, “Honey you’re gonna drive down there and I’m gonna turn off the security cameras ’cause you’re gonna have a little cry.”
“I’m not going to cry.”
I drove through the compound. Two days before my car was stolen it was my best friend’s wedding. I had given her a ride to the church. When the car was stolen I told the officer that the police could identify my car from the wedding dress glitter in the front seat. There was no visible damage to the car, inside or out, yet it took me more than a minute to get out of the rental car. Grasshopper remains coated the vehicle. I was not prepared for what I’d find inside, rubble: bottle-caps of used dark maple coloured adventure, baggies dusted and discarded. Sour scent and earth comfort and sweat stank clung to the fabric; attacking the closed doors of my memories like sealed papers locked in safety deposit boxes and packaged away perfectly in 12 step programs. Angrily, with some sort of misplaced power, I began to gather strewn paperclips. I pulled them from under seats, between cushions, under mats. Then I found the seven beads from the discarded key chain a student had made for me during my under-graduate degree, the first student with behaviour challenges that I had taught. Seven beads. Strewn. The security guard had warned me.
“I don’t tell this story out loud because it’s not much of a story. No plot. No neat ending. No clever turns of phrase. And because I always end up weeping… But for myself,” (King, 2003).
In my fancy teaching garb I crawled over remnants, lifting my shovel and my soccer chairs from the trunk.
My thesis advisor recently asked, “Why this work? Why now?”
Okay, maybe I am afraid.
Tears came that afternoon. They were not the ones I’d expected. Life is messy. The prairie wind danced raw across my face. A salvage yard tow truck in the distance dredged up steel and more steel like stories. Inside that car lived the messy stories from which I had walked away. The experiences that had led me to pick up my daughter and to retell our narrative into a story to live by. Standing in that compound I know I am still learning to live with the messy tellings. Standing in the salvage compound, I ached to share my story. I ached to have my story honoured.
Stories matter. I am beginning to wonder if it is the messy ones that need the most attending.
All those years ago a scared grade ten student stood in my doorway and asked me to attend to his stories.
Wiping away tears in the car dealer’s office, I heard over and over the comfortable, common story of trying to be like steel. It is a difficult story to live by. Sometimes… It is messy.
When I think about James standing in the doorway and asking me to attend to his story, it was James who was courageous. I am beginning to realize that it takes so much faith to trust another person with our stories.
I am beginning to understand that attending to stories takes time…
This past year I’ve been thinking deeply about story; this is what my Dad calls ‘storying’ – the process of living with narratives and attending to the lives of those we love – and storying is messy.
And I’m tired too. Storying can be difficult. Storying can be filled with “tension [simply in] being part of, and contributing to [our] narrative history,” (Clandinin et al., 2006, p. 70).
These past few months I’ve been living, telling, and retelling stories – thinking deeply about my stories in an autobiographical relational narrative way – sometimes as the stories came to live so clearly for me, as I searched for them in attics, basements, storehouses, and most important spaces, the ones that hide in plain sight – the stories became fresh, a bit less uncomfortable for me, and yet once shared, no longer secret.
This past fall I was scrimmaging at noon with our junior and senior boys’ basketball teams. I blocked a layup shot by a dear student, James, (pseudonym) a very broad-shouldered, very tall grade twelve student. The force of James’s layup drove his elbow into my nose. Blood and memory oozed, pain swirled, swallowing the backs of my eyes. I was blindsided by the residual effects of story. It had been more than a decade since someone for whom I cared had hit me. That fall day, though my feet had remained planted, my mind swirled away into a retelling of a story that James had meant to harm me. The swirling stretched into 15 long, long seconds. I waited. I said nothing to the students. I was silenced by the unplanned memory of my familiar long silenced difficult story. I walked to the bathroom. The administrative assistant tipped grey powder onto the gash, clotting the blood. When she left, I closed the door, catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror, slid down the wall, and wept; I was 21 years old again, blindsided and alone. “This is a story I know,” (King, 2003, p. 1).
I think it is sad how easily schools and teachers often make assumptions about students’ difficult stories – stories that are frequently deemed too uncomfortable for students and staff to share in teaching and learning spaces, stories that are kept silent behind closed doors by never being discussed, by beinghushed, by being ignored, by being discounted, by being push aside, by being marked, labelled, or marginalized. Place, when supported with trust and entered through narrative, can bring comfort to the retellingsof our difficult/tensioned-stories. Place does this for me.
I stood in the washroom. I heard the senior student ask after me. After I’d washed, after the flow of those fifteen seconds had passed, some 30 minutes later, I returned to the gymnasium to reassure him. I understood he had not caused me intentional harm. I needed to tell him I was okay. I knew he needed me to tell him I was okay – I knew he needed this from me because I have spent years attending to his stories.
I have lived alongside hundreds of students. “I’ve heard worse stories,” (King, 2003, p. 8). I know you have as well. I know you hang around after school because some of your students have no one there for them at the end of the day. I know that some of your students go home to parents who ignore them, or harm them. I know that your story too might be filled with details that reach deep, deep and will never leave. There are details that may be storying every relationship now, every moment of your life.
So how is my story special?
What makes my story different or needed?
Absolutely nothing…I tell the stories not to play on your sympathies but to suggest how stories can control our lives, for there is part of me that has never been able to move past these stories, a part of me that will be chained to these stories as long as I live. (King, 2003, p. 9)
When I completed the first draft of my thesis, I sent this story to my Mom. I’d never shared the stories of abuse with her. These are stories my Mom and I have kept silent; these are stories my daughter and I puzzle through. Storying is difficult.
Teaching and learning is messy.
Life is messy.
I wonder at the insistence in schooling spaces to choose only to listen to the easy, accessible and gentle stories?
Today was spectacular. The Middle-Years kids laughed. The Middle-Years kids stayed behind after class like they owned the place!
See, Tuesday was our first day together. I’ve not been with the M.Y. crew for a year. Oh, sure, a few of the kids know me. They were in my Arts Ed class two years ago when they were part of group of kids who taught pre-service teachers about student-led learning. These same kids were the group who created installation art, braking away from their classmates, visiting the Dean of Education’s Office, and leaving a wee sculpture resting on someone’s desk!
But Tuesday the entire group sat frozen. While some might like the idea of sensing fear within their students, this is not me! Afterwards, at the staff table, I nearly cried. And I sulked all evening!
Most of the students I teach are high school kids, and I am comfortable among them. Yet at the same time, I have ached for our middle-years kids.
That first day, with three grades together, four subjects wrapped-up into an hour a day, every time I shifted or began to speak, the room fell deeper into what felt an irretrievable silence.
They were scared. Oooh!
The second day I tried to ease us into our first project, and though the kids were trilled to be up and moving about the room, it was still me leading.
I teach in a small school, and sometimes it is easy to overlook the stresses that jumping into the higher grades and/or spaces brings. Though for the kids I teach, the higher grades might simply mean a stroll of forty feet, the journey is real. The change is profound.
There is a great deal of pressure in the elementary-high school shift, metaphorical or tangible. I tell all our kids I want them to leave happier then when they arrived to school in the morning. For the first two days of this new year, our M.Y. kids did not leave with joy.
About 40 minutes into today’s lesson, I had had enough. What walloped me in that moment was that I had recently taken a class where my learning needs, where my narrative had been silenced.
If I can help it, I will listen!
I asked everyone to drop what they where doing. I asked our kids to join me in a circle.
What’s our question?
Why is this important?
How would you like to go about figuring this out?
To my left a student said he’d like to think with rock climbing.. I said that sounded thrilling! Then, the room exploded.
Their homeroom teacher had told me they where excited to be hanging with me. If I had stopped long enough to listen to them, to remember their stories, to recall that they are experts at leading the way (in the circle discussion today the group talked about race &privilege, and began to critique how whiteness affects them ) and stopped trying to teach them we might not have waisted two and a half days!
The lunch bell rang and the kids where making plans. Outside, the senior kids had to wait, their space had been changed!
The best part: A grade seven student had sat red-eyed hunched over for most of the three days. All of a sudden she was beaming! Here were smiles and words and questions and joys! She asked if she could bring her tablet to our class…
She asked three more times making certain I was telling the truth. She smiled as she left the room. Our room, chairs in disarray, no one in assigned spots, excited to jump into different and difficult discovery.