This week, Google Music ceased existence. Although it let me transfer my playlist over to YouTube music, all of the podcasts I listened to on my trip to Calgary have disappeared. So unfortunately, that means the paper scrawled full with quotes and ideas isn’t citeable, and without the list to look at, I wouldn’t even know where to start.
Consequently, I apologize that I don’t know who said this, but it’s totally true:
“Every system is perfectly designed to get the result it gets.”
I thought on that for a long time. It runs parallel to the idea that, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.” I’d cite that too, but the internet is undecided on who actually said it lol.
So what do we want for our kids?
To be creative? Critical thinkers? Innovators? Problem-solvers? Relentless passion-pursuers?
And when they aren’t as creative or innovative or passionate as we hope they would be AND we are doing what we’ve always done, is the system getting the exact result it was designed for? Hmmmmm.
This fall, so much was new.
With the quint-semesters, everything was compressed into 2.5hr classes and 35 days.
Masks. Seating plans. Movement restrictions. Nothing felt the same.
But also a perfect opportunity to clean-slate it. So with our focus on social issues as seen through a media lens, we began.
In the first few days, the students and I (muddled) our way through the curricular outcomes to come up with individualized portfolio plans. They chose how they would meet each outcome on their own, or in a collaboration with others.
We took the 2.5hrs and broke it into small chunks. We kept the workshop model and the things we value in ELA at our school: booktalks, daily reading, quickwrites, student table talk, mentor media pieces, daily writing.
We went completely gradeless with a focus on learning. We side-by-sided it everyday. We built community with thinking classroom activities and language-based games.
We learned Google Classroom, flexing between whole-class instruction and Google Slide lessons referenced individually as needed. We equally valued product and process, creating a reflective artist statement on every piece.
We shared ideas and put up examples from our classmates as people completed their work. We brainstormed what “good” infographics, photography, writing, visual art, oral presentations, etc. looked like. We had flexible schedules, some working straight through and taking their break at the end, with others needing their 10 minutes mid-morning to squeeze in a game or two of “Among Us.” (Google it lol.)
I know that’s just a list, and not a reflection. We aren’t quite done yet, and I’m still getting my head around what differences those changes are actually tied to.
But I can tell you this much.
Attendance has been a challenge for many of these students in the past. They were there almost every single day.
Physically getting words written down, is also not easy for some. Instead of a handful of sentences, they used the Google Voice Typing feature and regularly got 450-500 words in their reflective pieces. Another student used Screencastify to record his voice and walk me through what he was thinking for his writing work.
Student choice was huge for some, difficult for others. Some had a singular social issue that they were passionate about, and they weaved it through all of their portfolio pieces. Others had different topics for each.
Juggling multiple tasks at once had its own challenges. From the beginning, I likened it to cooking a meal. You can’t just cook one thing at a time, it’ll take forever and things will get cold. You have to multi-task and it all has to come together at the end to eat. (Midway through the month, we watched a great TED talk on procrastination to help some of us stay on track!)
There is a huge range of ability: some of the most beautiful poetry that I may have ever seen; raw writing on Period Poverty, abuse, BLM; and a narrative on a pizza pop that I’m not 100% sure I want to know the ending to. But they are engaged and interested and I have been impressed every day watching them work.
We aren’t quite there yet. It’s hard to switch to a mindset of learning, and more than once a student wouldn’t see the value of games or activities that day, wanting to work on the portfolio to ‘get it done.’
We have a final assessment this week that is outcome-based, with a series of tasks (comprehension, composition, reflection) to complete in their 3hrs. They are given a job for the United Nations and need to create a presentation (PowerPoint and either a persuasive speech or narrative) suitable for middle years students on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. It’s not a secret. They’ve seen the ‘test’ already and know what lays ahead. Then we will have individual interviews to go through their portfolio pieces and reflections, determining an overall final grade together.
That’s really nice, you’re probably thinking. But what do the students think? If the idea was to have more engaged, innovative, and thoughtful students, is that what has happened?
I’ll know more this week as I ask them.
But this was in a student’s writing notebook this week, and although there are definitely things that can be improved, it gives me hope (and some relief lol) that a system meant for student voice, choice, thinking, and creativity will get the results it is designed for too.
When school first started and we were in the classes, I was a little disappointed. All my friends were in the other class and I wasn’t necessarily that close with K<name> although we were lowkey friends. Also I saw all the boys in this class last year get kicked out every day so I’m like this class is going to suck. We started our projects and K and I vibed some more and I really enjoyed this. I normally don’t like having that much option for projects and what to do in class. I normally just like to be told exactly what to do like with our essays and not having to be creative at all, but I really enjoyed everything we did this year.
Did anyone else tape their broken crayons together when they were little? It was probably done in the spirit of not throwing anything useful away, and I'd actually forgotten about it until I was cleaning old craft supplies this summer and came across a handful of them.
I was thinking of them again this week as we did a writing activity using pieces from a game called Paint Chip Poetry. Students partnered up and used a handful of paint chip pieces with descriptive names (just like the crayons) to create their own poems.
It was actually a lot of fun! The level of engagement was crazy high, but what really surprised me was that a student stayed afterward to write her own piece. She left it on my computer over lunch, saying that it was the best writing she had ever done. Okay, wow. That small nudge from a handful of paint chips turned into an avalanche for her!
So here we go. I'm fairly confident in my ability to string words together in a coherent fashion when it comes to this blog every week, but poetry? I haven't written poetry for a very long time. It's a whole different thing lol. But in the spirit of living the vulnerability that I like to talk about so much, I pulled out the taped-up crayons as my own pre-thinking inspiration and wrote this: Broken Crayons, all.
Broken crayons, all.
cerulean blue bits
and burnt sienna shrapnel.
perfect cylindrical tubes of mass-produced David’s
for the pint-size Michelangelo
to scrawl the pièce-de-resistance-de-jour
proudly perched on the fridge.
snapped off in fits of dysregulated
or simply the resultant pressure of
pushing too hard
to get it
(but it was wrong anyway.)
Paper covers peeled off in various stages of
disarray and dismemberment,
no regard for the Crayola name
even though it should have given
some semblance of safety
when thrust roughly into the box of 64
*complete with sharpener*
when it had only known the snug security of
12 simple primary and secondary companions.
There was no plain yellow here
amongst the diente de lion and pissenlit
even if they called themselves
Waxy residue left in full view
of the other broken pieces
like a black hole smudged by fingers
Bandaged up with ragged rounds of masking tape
(rounds and rounds and rounds and rounds and rounds and)
that will simply not be
concealed by shimmering slips of metallic pink,
the bulge in the middle
giving it away every damn time.
What would you say to that
robin’s egg blue if you could?
I mean, I know that you can’t.
Because this is just pretend
and this is just crayons.
We are broken crayons, all
and a tape-weld is better than remnant-life
and much easier to hold
even if it is half-green-half-yellow,
and even if the pieces
I don’t have a bucket list. I really don’t. I’ve been fortunate to travel and fulfill many dreams, so when I tell kids that I want to jump out of an airplane before I’m fifty, I’m half-joking.
And half not.
I love trying new things. Seeing if I can do it. And before anyone screams that those are classic mid-life crisis symptoms, this isn't new. Learning to skate and joining a hockey team when you are 35? Not easy lol.
But this weekend’s exploits were BY FAR the hardest thing that I have pushed myself to do, both physically and mentally: rock climbing.
It’s a bit of a story, so here we go.
My daughter, Eliisa, has university finals and wasn’t able to come home for Thanksgiving, so I loaded up with podcast recommendations and drove to see her. Her boyfriend, Corbin, is a seasoned climber and Eliisa has taken up the sport too.
Mom, do you want to try?
The first night we did bouldering at a local climbing gym. Climbing paths are clearly marked out, as the hand and feet ‘rocks’ are brightly colored and the difficulty level labelled. The highest the walls go are 14 feet, and most people jump directly down onto the floor of giant mats from the top.
I was a little too timid for that, not trusting old joints to land in alignment, so I climbed my way back down too. It was fun, and aside from blisters forming on my hands, was a good introduction to climbing.
Next morning? Mountains.
-2C and cold!
We drove to Kananaskis and hiked 10 minutes up a rocky path into the wilderness. When we stopped, the grade was so steep that I had to place my backpack and shoes carefully so that they didn’t roll down into the crevasse.
Corbin went first, scaling the rock and setting up the top rope. That made me nervous to watch. Essentially the rope goes from the ground, through hooks at the top, and back down. The person on the ground belays, holding the rope for the climber and keeping them safe.
There are bolts (hooks) in the rock that he feeds the rope through, attaching them with carabiners, so that if you fall, you are only falling to the carabiner below. Once I got my head around the fact that I was safe, the nerves went away, replaced by the hard work of getting up the rock.
You look for a hole to grab or a little jutting rock to put your toe on. With climbing shoes, it’s amazing how the tiniest of surfaces can be useful.
Get my foot higher. Toe on a rock edge.
Push myself to standing.
Get my hand over that rock and grab.
Slow, hard work.
For the first time, I was feeling Brene Brown’s “there is no courage without vulnerability” on a literal level.
The most difficult sections were the smooth rock where there were no hand-holds at all, and there was one point in each of the climbs where I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t think I could finish. Part of my brain telling me not to quit, that I’ll be forever mad at myself if I don’t do it! But another part of the brain is in survival mode, and the body is telling a different story. They call it ‘Elvis leg,’ an uncontrolled shaking and I can’t make my left leg stop doing it.
I don’t see any way up or left or right and as much as I lean my body into the wall like the two of them are encouraging me, I feel like an action movie character clinging to a cliff before they fall.
The first time it was unexpected, trying to get through a difficult section, my foot sideways on a rock (not the toe, my mistake) a small slip and…
…an andrenaline rush, for starters!
But then a wave of relief and the confirmation that I was perfectly safe.
The second time, I knew it was coming. Against the smooth wall, I had tried several different ways to move but couldn’t see the crack for my left foot that the kids could see, and the only other option was one at chest-height. I’m not flexible enough to do that standing on solid ground, let alone perched with one foot on an inch-wide ledge and the other on the tiniest of protrusions, so that wasn’t going to happen.
“I can’t hold this. I’m going to fall!”
And I did.
It was scary for a split second, but the rope went taut and I jerked to a stop. I slammed into the wall, likely where the ugly bruise on my leg is from. But it gave me a second to rest and breathe, and when I got my foot back onto the small rock, I could see the crack they had suggested and pushed my way up and through.
The benefit of having other eyes on the ground is that they coached me all the way. They saw spots that I couldn’t, encouraging me to reach juuuuust a bit farther when I said I couldn’t.
“Awesome! You’re through the hard section now!”
I swear to god, they said that for every section, but it was the encouragement I needed to make it through each one.
It seems to be a theme of my writing these past few weeks: that even though we know the end goal of our journey, you make it through by focusing on what is in front of you. One section at a time.
And then you’re at the top.
The view is amazing, of course, but you can stand anywhere in the mountains and have an amazing view.
What made this one special, was hanging in a harness off the edge of the mountain. Legs dangling. Hands not holding on.
I’m not afraid of heights, so looking down didn’t bother me. Although I did have a vice-grip on my phone as I took a few minutes to take some pictures!
The way down wasn’t nearly as challenging but was just as exciting. The first time, it was like an amusement park ride as the kids controlled my descent (I went quickly lol) but the second I rappelled down myself. It was like a weird horizontal walk, as you keep your feet flat against the wall, legs straight, your hands on the rope as the brake.
It was - hands down - one of the most exciting and challenging things that I’ve ever done. And I loved it.
Of course, there was ample time to think about how the adventure applies to our lives. Although my own takeaways on perseverance were obvious, I was mostly struck by the differences between the two days of climbing.
In the first, everything was laid out. Simple. Straightforward. Differentiated to your ability. Soft mats to catch you.
In the second, the path was barely clear. You had to find your own way through. The obstacles were plenty, and the rocks were very much real. They scratched and bruised. There was a rope and hooks for backup, but a fall was still abrupt and jarring.
At first, it reminded me of how some of our paths through life are paved with supports and safety; others with challenge after challenge after challenge to overcome. It made me think about the gradual release of responsibility model, as the two kids modelled and guided me the first day and then coached me on the second day as I did it myself.
As I thought about which day I enjoyed more, it was definitely the latter.
Why? I began to think of the lawnmowering approach to raising children, removing every hindrance and hardship to save them heartbreak and disappointment. Except that by doing that, we also remove their ability to struggle through challenges, to learn lessons about persevering, and to feel the pride in achieving a goal.
Robert Frost was right: “I shall be telling this with a sigh,
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood,
and I — I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Be forewarned. I’m a whole lot tired and a little bit grumpy.
I’ve just finished watching the clip of Trump with only a fabric mask on, contagious with COVID, driving around in his sealed SUV and exposing Secret Service agents for a photo op.
Like that wasn’t bad enough, he releases a video saying: “I learned a lot about COVID. I learned it by really going to school. This is the REAL school. This isn’t the ‘let’s read a book’ school. And I get it.”
We don’t always “get” something until it happens to us, but COME ON. Scientists have been telling us about COVID since February, and there are some things that we should TOTALLY learn from books and not experience, and getting a viral infection that can kill you is one of them.
So I’m not letting DJT off the hook. But today is a day where I feel a huge amount of guilt for not really “getting” the tragedy of cancer until my closest cousin died of it just over a year ago.
Of course, we have had cancer in our family like almost every other family out there, but it was random and not rampant. So when Lisa was diagnosed with breast cancer and had treatment, I assumed that like so many other women, that she would survive it.
She did not. Just short of her 49th birthday, the world lost a teacher, mother, colleague, mentor, athlete, friend….a list just doesn’t do it justice. Today, I ran 10km for her in the CIBC Run for a Cure. As the paper pinny says, “I am always running for Lisa.”
Do I get what cancer does to families now? I sure do.
Do I pay more attention to the challenges and suffering of people in other ways I’m not affected by? I sure try.
So what is it about human nature that makes us only pay attention to things when it impacts us directly? Why do we struggle to empathize or look from another point of view?
I know there is research on this. I know there are scientific reasons. But my Trump rant has put me over the word count already, so let me get in one more story instead.
This week in ELA, one of students brought up the topic of demonstrators tearing down statues in the USA. John A. Macdonald’s name also came up. As did arguments for keeping him right where he is in parks all across Canada.
This was my response.
Over my many years at our school, several students have passed away. I don’t know when it quite started, but each time our community was struck by tragedy, a mural was painted on the hallway walls. Each one was meaningful, and no doubt an important part of the healing process for the students who created them.
So when our school underwent a large renovation a few years ago, there was some backlash to the murals being painted over.
I could empathize with the alumni artists. Their pain was literally painted on the cinderblock. But they had graduated and moved on. They were not walking the halls every day as many of us continued to do.
Whenever I walked by one, I vividly remembered the night of the accident. Driving back from the city, it was only 2kms from our house and we detoured backroads to get home.
As I walked by another, I would think of the last conversation we had on a Friday afternoon, as best I remember, we were talking about band.
Yet another, the memories of teaching their sibling, every conversation a conscious effort to not say the wrong name, so striking were their similarities.
Those murals were a daily, painful reminder of those young lives lost.
And it was daily.
They were never just pictures painted on a wall for me as they were for all the students who came afterward, with no knowledge of those teens. And I don't think that the alumni artists had any idea of the effect it had on those of us left behind.
I still think of those students. Absolutely. I won't ever forget them.
But it is far less painful without daily visual reminders.
So although I really only associate John A. Macdonald with the ten dollar bill, the first PM and being an alcoholic, his infamous legacy is so much more particularly to Indigenous people. As much as I could walk by a statue of him and perhaps not even recognize his likeness, that is the privilege of not having felt the impact of his decisions impacting my existence to this day. And as he stands in a park somewhere, he is a painful daily visual reminder as well.
I hope that every lesson isn’t one that we have to experience ourselves. That we can learn lessons from books. From science.
From each other.
That we can see and acknowledge the concerns and suffering of people and support them. Be there for them.
I wish I could still be there for you coz. I’ll be running here for you instead. Miss you.
Perpetual amateur. Lifelong learner. Vice-Principal. Teacher. Musician. Mom. Annnnd if you're reading this, then I'm still a blogger.