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
We are an alternate school and part of what we believe is finding ways to listen to and live alongside each other. Around here, we hope everyone finds a sense of belonging so that everyone is able to say, in some way, I’m here.
The morning after we read Reynolds’ book, before I arrived at school, I messaged friends and colleagues. I asked folks to make a paper airplane, to toss an air plane and then to share that moment.
Many people ignored my request. Many people responded with a LOL. A few people grumped out a response.
I am attending Festival of Words this week. Tomorrow is workshop day. The morning is poetry. The afternoon is passion. I have been instructed to arrive in the morning with a poem to work on in class. I wanted to write a performance piece about my deep loathing of homework. However, the following emerged:
Del was 81 when her grown daughter of five died.
Sipping tea, Del told me that people don’t bring casseroles to a divorce.
Del was wise. She told me when I had the world figured out I could buy a pair of red shoes.
My flats were red with a band of pink across the toe. They fit the width of my feet.
Del died years ago, long before I was ready for my shoes.
She never told me about strokes.
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
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.
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.
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.
Lately I’ve been studying the work of Thomas King. He asserts, and I agree with him, that once a story is heard, it cannot be unheard. Yet there is more to the ‘cannot be unheard-conversation.’ Certainly, in King’s work he digs deeper. In classrooms, however, though stories are heard, they are often made silent or kept hidden. I don’t think the single responsibility for silencing stories lies with educators and/or education systems. I have felt the ripple effects of silenced stories in every community where I have lived, in every school where I have worked and with many kids I have taught. I know the stories I too try to keep silent.
I often think it is the silenced stories that most alter a journey; it is the silenced stories that are given no voice that become stories to leave by.
I have a sense that some stories are so painful that today, even today, I can only come to live alongside them, in the clenched-molar-spaces as I grind my teeth at night, waking Jess one room over. Perhaps sharing the reverberations loosens their bite.
“[A]n education that is about knowing differently rather than knowing more may be humanity’s best hope” (Davis, Sumara & Luce-Kapler, 2000, p. 9). I hope knowing differently, means honouring all stories. I’ve been thinking about the stories schools keep silent. I been thinking about the stories I’ve listened to my community keep silent. I’ve been thinking a lot about suicide-stories. These stories are the stories that have focused my work, and that have storied my community and me. Yet, these stories are the ones most hidden, most silenced. These stories are my stories. Yet perhaps out of ignorance, perhaps out of nervousness, and sometimes out of fear, I shut the door. I often silence suicide stories.
I live in the midst of the reverberations of suicide stories. I want to share differently, know differently, I want to honour stories. I am tired of closing doors.
Last week a student sent this message:
“I’ll make you a deal. I’ll talk [publicly] about the suicides in my life …and you do too.”
My first response was nervousness. Afterwards, I felt like I wanted to share. I wrote to my teacher, a person with whom I have a trusting relationship:
i paused to wonder if the focus of my work should be singularly on suicide-stories. i struggle, i silence myself everyday to share, to share differently, more or better. my pause was months in the making. however, there are other silenced stories. i never knew how loud my silent puzzling months had been. i never knew how beautifully kids listen.
You see, three years ago my friend lost her son to suicide. She was one of the best moms and best teachers I have ever met. Later, standing in a parking lot, I held her hand as she told me she had to leave her home-city because this place kept retelling her story as a story to leave by. My friend’s son had a best friend name Sam (pseudonym). At the time, Sam lived next door to me and my daughter, Jess. Jess grew up playing with Sam, inventing games on the front steps and on the bumpy streets under the protective overhang of the giant elms trees. When I came home that first day after learning about the suicide, I remember the sound of the trampoline as Sam’s repetitions finally ceased and he coming over to me to share. I held his hands through the latticework of the fence while we whispered stories back and forth.
I remember that first day in my classroom after learning about the suicide, and being told it might be best not to return to my classroom being upset. I remember that the students were already living in the midst of the suicide-story; they were already confused and worried and upset. I remember returning to our safe storying space and not knowing where to begin or how to explain. I remember that I told the kids these things. I shared my feelings. I shared that I was grateful we were together. I shared a personal story; I shared all I know about my friend as wonderful mom and as wonderful teacher. I remember I had begun with story.
Two and a half years later, I remember wrapping my arms around Sam during a Halloween event as he learned, for the first time, that his best friend’s family had moved away.
A few days ago, when Sam’s family also moved, Sam was unable to come and say goodbye; next door is a long way. Stories to leave by are loud. Jess too was unable to cross the silent property line to say goodbye; reverberations run deep. The next morning the moving truck pulled away. It was all so normal and so calm.
Stories matter, for all of us.
i know you are happy to be away from [here] and that’s good. i want you to know how much you and your family have meant to me and to jess every moment we have lived here. jess is in tears right now, though im certain she’d not want me to tell you so. and likely in tears aching for the days gone by.
days gone by are the hardest to say goodbye to. and maybe we never do say goodbye, or never really have too. some memories are harder than others. i think the best of love & of life is suppose stay with us.
sam. my whole life i will never forget the amazing young man you are. you remind me of my dad; jess saw this in you too, sam; the kindest and best of people.
be happy. take care of you. and someday, someday, stop in. come home.
most of all. be very very happy.
much, much love. cori (& jessy lee)
I am so tired of closing doors.
Okay, I’m nervous, but let’s try…
When I was a young girl I’d follow my Dad and my sister on treks as they talked plant botany, Dad pausing every once in a while to turn and change the science into narrative, “Wolf willow has an interesting story.” He’d stand feet planted shoulder-width apart, take off his well-warn Tilly hat with the Russian thistle tucked into its fold, wipe his brow with his forearm, look off over the prairie and something magical would happen. He’d listen for story to come.
Often, my sister, then three big long years older, would fill in these stories. How had she heard them? I’d sometimes remember to wonder, but then, too often I’d be too busy to notice. I’d have fallen behind, playing in brome grass, savouring rose hips, snoozing among sagebrush, until Dad paused. Yet eventually, I’d know.
Dad taught me to listen. He taught me to follow.
What I found difficult was leading with story.
A while back another adult told me to “pretend” that I’ did not hear a student’s personal story. When I’d heard “pretend” I was stunned. My first thought was that I had misunderstood the adult’s words. I asked the person to clarify.
Pretend not to have heard.
I remember how I felt.
Had this person not noticed the way I interact with student? Kids are often stopping by our classroom space for hugs, or to hang out, to chat. The comforting space that lives between students and myself doesn’t only happen in our classroom, it travels with us, wherever we are. Often this confuses people, the ease the students and I have with each other.
How could anyone not understand the way I live among kids and their stories?
So I asked for clarification a third time.
I had not been listing to a student’s easy story. I had been listening to a difficult story. These are the silenced stories that school spaces often keep hidden behind principals’ closed doors, around staffroom tables and in documents filled out and filed in cabinets, silenced by folks who spend little time actually attending to people/kids.
When I was in elementary school I failed a grade. It took me decades to be able to share that story. When I failed grade five in French Immersion and moved into the English program, you bet I pretended for a long long while. I told counterstories about why I was at a different school in my own neighbourhood. Clandinin et al explain counterstories; “These stories are rooted temporally as individual stories shift and change in response to changing events and circumstances” (2006).
Today I knowingly try not to craft counterstories about my elementary years. I share these stories because often, I’ll sit next to a student, who like me then, sees letters and words both forwards and backwards. Who understands words’ meaning but has difficulty expressing these meanings or can, but only through the glint in her eyes. Sometimes, when I share my-grade-five cori-who-spent-days-bouncing-a-rubber-ball-in-resource-story, kids are better able to tell stories to live by.
All those years ago, did I want to tell my story? No. Did everyone who lived alongside me know my story? Yes.
Now I’m not saying I should be running around telling others’ stories.
I’m saying – I’m not pretending not to hear.
What if the story is a suicide-story? An abuse-story?
Because this was the reality, the story I was told to ignore. And then it’s not possible to pretend anyway. Thomas King tells us that when we have heard a story we are forever part of that story, our perspective is forever changed. Story cannot be unheard. (2003).
I will never pretend.
I will try to attend to story, I try to live alongside story and seek spaces that allow story to come.
My Dad taught me that.
Maybe the person who asked hadn’t spent enough time around our story spaces. Maybe this person really didn’t know I believe we are connected through story.
Mostly, I think this is my fault. I think I fell behind. Far behind.
I forgot to lead with story, even the difficult and silencing story.
I forgot, but I’m listing again.
My daughter taught me this.
Friday the high school student hosted an Open Mic. A grade twelve student shared his story.
Later, one of the much younger students messaged me, saying she never knew how strong he was until he shared. She never knew.
We must lead through story.
Story teaches us this.
Stories are, after all, all that we are. (King, 2003).