Tag: Tensioned Stories

Keeping Talking

~

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.

“Hug them.”

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.

Needed.

Talk openly. Talk hard. Talk hope. Start now.

Strong in Mess

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how much I like staying connected with kids. It’s a messy topic.

Here’s what I know. And it’s not much.

About every month or so, my daughter goes out for coffee and a muffin with her former grade six resource teacher. My daughter is in grade ten. Actually, she’s almost in grade eleven. Their suppers are at Tim’s and sometimes they run close to five hours. They talk and talk. The teacher is incredibly dear to my daughter, Jess.

I joyfully support their relationship. The more positive supports in Jess’ life the more likely she is to make positive choices, or so I believe. Sure, Jess shares the messy business of our life with this teacher. Life is messy. Sometimes, it was extraordinarily messy. It still can be at times. Sometimes, Jess needs to share with someone other than me.

I get this.

I’m not so closed that I believe my family or myself can be or will always be everything for Jess. She needs safe people. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather ‘safe people’ be like that amazing grade six teacher who told Jess that her stutter just didn’t matter rather than someone who only listened to Jess’ common story.

See, that teacher and I are a team.

About four weeks ago, right out of the blue, on a Sunday morning, she called me. We are a team. She’d heard some things about some kids in Jess’s world and she felt she needed to check in, sort of a mom-to-mom. I was so moved, so honoured to have someone love my kid that much. She’s a mom too, after all. And let me tell you, she’s a teacher too; she was nervous as heck calling me. The truth is, she loves my kid more than our friendship; Jess’ safety came first – and I sure do like that!

She didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, that Jess and hadn’t discussed at the end of the day, sitting perched on the bed talking into the wee hours. ‘Cause we share, we story, all the time.

Still, I did share with Jess what the teacher had shared. It is good to be so profoundly loved and looked after. Around here, in August, my Dad begins worrying about the snow that might begin to fall and for my safety on the highway; being loved is good.

As I shared this story some folks asked if I was offended.

It takes a community to raise a child; this isn’t a line, it the messy resonance of truth. Long ago, I understood that our stories, messy as they may seem, need safe harbors. The grade six teacher is one. I like that Jess has other moms. This list just grows and grows. As it does, it makes the two us so strong.

I don’t know if I have a point. I know I have a student whom I taught six years ago that I speak with every week, without fail. He is like family to me. I know he’s not my son, though at times, he feels like it.

Sometimes I don’t understand this notion of family or community while at other times, I sense it in my bones.

Love is messy. Life is too. Positive connections make everything more beautiful.

Opening Doors

Stories Matter.

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.

Stories matter.

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.

Stories matter.

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.

Stories matter.

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.

dear Sam

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.

Stories matter.

Okay, I’m nervous, but let’s try…

Stories to Live By (Stories to Leave By)

Every other Tuesday I attend a writing/story group. Attendance isn’t a requirement of my graduate work, but yet I feel it is a useful space to share stories with other grad students who tend to have a relational narrative way of living and being with the world. Along with my instructor, there are six of us. Everyone shares.  

Last Tuesday I shared a two and a half page poem about a former student’s suicide journey and how my then principal and I had come to journey alongside his narrative. After I had shared, the group’s feedback almost stopped, stuck between discomfort over both the shift in style and content as well as the power of the story, “I feel like you’ve pushed me in the stomach and I don’t quite know how to respond.” I tried to meet my group members’ eyes, but really, the discomfort had been the point of the poem.

I looked toward my instructor, not there to grant grades, simply a woman giving her time, and offering time for story-sharing, pulling us together so we might … I don’t know: grow, create, critique, pause or push.

The purpose in sharing the story was to show through narrative that in so many ways students’ voices are silenced in schools, in classrooms, within teachers. Some stories are told with the hope they live only as hidden-stories.

Darn it! I wanted feedback.  

The poem will become the transition to a larger document I will share with my division in a few weeks. After a few moments of silence and after I had shared the poem’s purpose, many in the group asked if I was worried whether this professional work of opening spaces where student narratives are honoured will put my job at risk.

I wonder.

Pushing the boundaries around silence is messy work. Those on the boundaries listening to narrative for the first time “cringe at the mantra of people growing ten, then twenty, then thirty, then forty feet tall with pride as they “disclose” the sexual abuse they suffered at residential school or the relentless cycle of attempts and failures as characters try to put their lives in order. But in all this, there is a delightful inventiveness of tone, a strength of purpose that avoids the hazards of the lament and allows the characters the pleasure of laughing at themselves and their perils,” (King, 2003).

My instructor listens well. She allowed me to talk my way through to understanding how best to figure out this question.

Much of our work attending to the lives of children involves creating safe spaces by listening to each other creating stories to live by. Clandinin et al state we are creating and sharing stories to live by when we are “finding the space with parents and children to try ‘something different’,” (2006). For the most part, our ways of attending to the lives of families and of children creates stories to live by.

But sometimes kids aren’t connected to schools or to their teachers, and they leave. Sometimes, the same thing can be said for teachers who similarly are not connected to their school, to their administrators or to their divisions. And this happens again and again.

I’d sure like to understand why.

When I looked up and met my instructor’s gaze last Tuesday, it is stories to leave by that she was sharing.

Years ago, before my instructor was a Mom, she resigned her teaching role in a large school. Dismayed over changes in the division that demanded shifts in her practice that did not coincide with her philosophy, she resigned. Her departure was an act of activism, though a silent one then. Her choice to leave her position had a lasting effect on her future. Tuesday she shared that when she left, for the most part, only her immediate supervisors knew the reasons for her departure. Hers was a silenced story to leave by.

My work is messy work. “Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous,” (King, 2003). I do not want my work to become a story to leave by.

I hear stories to leave by every day with kids I live alongside.

~

Three years ago I met two brothers – kind kids, busy. They reminded me of me when I was their age. I coached them in junior basketball; they hung out outside my window on Saturdays while I worked late at school. We talked dirt bikes, school, Graffiti Art and life. Through a series of events, the boys had been storied negatively by some adults as trouble makers. I think this was why they liked being with me. I let them tell their silenced story. For hours and hours, while they cleaned the classroom and Art room, they shared. But outside the classroom other stories were being told. Soon not only were the boys able to explain the benefits of moving schools, but it was like no one could read any other story than a story to leave by; “storms can be tricky,” (King, 2003).

And their lingering story, these many years later, some days feels as though, if I were to let it, would become the opening line of my own story to leave by. I just never understood this until I sat down to write this post.

Years ago I met a fluffy haired kid dressed all in black. He knew no other story than a story to leave by and he told it clearly and to anyone who would listen. “I’m a drunk” & “I’m dumb,” (he is not & he is not). He became one of my favourite students. His name is Dylan.

When he graduated his classmate told me it was really important that I speak at his graduation. When I asked why, the classmate said that he had been ready to drop out of school when I had met him. What is important about Dylan’s narrative is that it wasn’t his connection with me that helped him retell his story. Dylan began to tell a story to live by because he had a space where he felt safe sharing his story.

I guess you can say Dylan’s story is my plot.

Last fall I met a senior student, Derek (pseudonym) who had been silenced in his home life and at school. Though he is happy now, and expresses a deep connection to his learning space, Derek arrived open to listening. I arrived open to listening. Derek has a past filled with the kinds of stories which the community and parents caution should not be shared in learning spaces. I find these statements oppressive. I am my stories. We can no more silence student voice than we can be allowed to hide students. Yet often, this is the norm.

Often I wonder how anyone could have chosen not to listen to this young man. But Derek tells me he wasn’t the same then, and I get that. I remember the way I lived alongside my high school teachers. The other day, a community member stopped by the school and Derek, seeing the vehicle, returned to check in on me. He wanted to make certain “I wasn’t’ getting any grief.”

I am amazed how well my students understand the tensioned-stories that I try to keep silent. I know they can read my behaviours, the times my eyes are a bit darker underneath, or when I’m not bouncing around the classroom as much. They listen to me as well as I listen to them.

This weekend, as I sat down to read journals and prep for student-led conferences, Derek, who had been away from school three years and is back, sent this note, “you better not leave until I do,” (Personal notes, 2013).

Last Friday one of my grade ten students decided to transfer.  I wasn’t surprised.  I had been listening to him tell his story to leave by for months. I knew he’d go. Last year, it was a grade eleven student (who has since returned home now to graduate with his friends).  But each story is different. Each child is different.  I wasn’t surprised, but I was saddened. The grade ten student and his story to leave by had begun when his best friends moved three years ago. I had tried to help him tell a story to live by.

Why had I allowed him to keep telling it as a story to leave by? Maybe, it was because I knew I’d open a space by listening. Maybe it was because I cannot save kids. Maybe it was because, I just don’t know…

Why do we allow some students transition between places, why do we allow teachers to leave without asking why? Why do we choose not to listen?

Why do we choose not to share our stories to leave by? Why do we stay silent?

I am guilty of silence.

But I’m learning.

When my instructor retold her story to leave by I think she was saying, “Share, for goodness sake, Cori, share. Don’t stay silent.”

Write.

This is messy tension-filled and valuable work.  Do not let the voices of a few force you to be silent.

Stories. “I tell them to myself, to my friends, sometimes to strangers. Because they make me laugh. Because they are a particular kind of story. Saving stories, if you will. Stories that help keep me alive,” (King, 2003).

So, I am pretty sure, Derek’s story, like the stories of so many of our students, is my theme. His story is my theme because so often we have told stories to leave by and have come to tell stories to live by.

Last Friday after our first basketball game while the kids were running amuck in the gymnasium, I shared my week with a friend and colleague. And you know what? He storied in return. He shared a tensioned-filled grief story. And I felt honoured.

More importantly, I felt rooted in our story space.

If I so desperately need this space, so do kids.

Honour stories. Live, tell, retell and live stories to live by.

Indifference to Stories

A couple days ago I asked my online network to push back and wonder along with me about the “insistence in schooling spaces to choose only to listen to the easy, accessible and gentle stories.”

None of you replied.

Sure. Perhaps it’s because I’ve a rather small blog following, but I don’t think that’s the only reason. I tweeted the link twice. If you add to that the number of followers that glanced over my blog and to that their networks…

There’s more to the story.

Let me put it this way. Last July, in the middle of Summer Institute at the U of R, an instructor pulled me aside and told me “Stories have no value.”

#aCommentofPower

Well, it is. But nonetheless, hearing those words from a person of power and privilege nearly knocked my feet out from under me. Relational narrative inquiry is all about stories, is about attending to our stories, and listening to our stories. This hasn’t only been my graduate work, but it has been the way I’ve learned to live and be in my world, how I’ve learned about my world; stories help me make meaning of my culture and traditions. They are my language.

Take my stories away and you prove your indifference towards me.

Indifference is easy for someone in power. It is easy to choose a dominant social norm – a grand narrative. And frighteningly, educators too often choose to adopt these traditional views in their classrooms.

A few days ago when I offered my messy story I was doing so as a means to open discussion that would push back against these commonly held easily accepted maxims that ignore the messy stories and silence those around us who are without privilege. When we choose only one way to tell, to retell or to listen to story we are simply reinforcing one way of living, a dominate normative way. And in that space, we silence others.

A year after I’d separated from my marriage, family member used to deliberately stop conversations by simply interjecting, “Cori is divorcing.” The family member used her privilege to control the narratives in spaces for her own means. She knew this and she wielded the power of story to serve her own needs. Those around her were most often unable or unwilling or – heck, too darn scared – to challenge her power and to create a counterstory. A counterstory is, as Clandinin et al state, “a story that contributes to the moral self-definition of its teller by undermining the dominant story, undoing it and retelling it in such a way as inviting new interpretations and conclusions,” (2006). I don’t know about you, but if we open spaces where counter-stories might be honoured, then aren’t we, as educators, allowing students space to become curriculum makers too?

#thisisaBeautifulSpace

But why is being so indifferent towards the messy stories so easy? Why is listing to the gentle stories, the stories of strife in faraway places so simple? This is my first year alongside Middle Years students in a while. Recently they’ve been planning a Middle Years workshop and they’ve asked the senior students to host the educational awareness sessions. When the senior students presented ideas like abuse, violence and addiction, many of the MY students seemed to have never heard of such issues existing close to home. But they do exist; I know the kids. The stories are real.  The students simply have not yet found a school-place where their difficult and tensioned stories are allowed to be shared.

#Why

Sharing stories is messy work and with whom would the power lie if teachers and schooling were to give voice to students? If they were to honour students?

It would no longer lie with the adults.

For me, as teacher, as a white educated adult in the learning space, I recognize my power and privileges akin to the following: “I was the boy next door, schooled in America’s pedagogy of racial stereotypes, fear, and racism. [Here, p]rivilege, stereotypes and irrational fear were on full display. I fear, I profiled, and I lived within America’s racial logic.”

So how do I begin to listen?

Because of that feeling that came over me when that teacher told me my stories had no value, I knew she was not honouring me. I knew it was a familiar feeling, a feeling I’d learned at an early age. I knew I never wanted to feel like that again. I knew that was a kind of power I have, but that I do not choose to use. I knew I never wanted anyone I love or dislike to feel their feet-out-from-under-them because of my indifference to their story.

“The truth about stories,” Thomas King writes, “is that that’s all we are,” (2003).

I am my stories. I am our stories. And I need a space to share them. Students need to share them too. That’s a wack sack of stories. What amazes me is our reaction, the devaluing of youths’ stories because they are kids’ stories. 

So I ask you, help me push this further, how do you honour the messy tensioned student narratives?