It’s all about you

This year, for the first time, I’m teaching one of my own children.  Now, it’s only for 75 minutes a week, but it’s an adventure nonetheless. My son, who’s 8, is having a very hard time separating Mommy from Miss Emily and it’s a challenge for me to manage his needs effectively when I have 9 other kids to teach at the same time. It’s usually not pretty and I often leave with a nagging headache.

But this week, for the first time in several weeks, I managed to sleep through the night uninterrupted prior to teaching his ballet class.  Instead of going into the class feeling exhausted and edgy, I went in feeling pretty good and I even had enough energy to teach the following class without worrying that I’d fall asleep on my feet.

I’ve been doing some extra reading about how to best teach younger boys in ballet class (there are 3 boys in my son’s class) so I’ve been putting some of those strategies into place for the past few weeks (floor exercises instead of centre work, movement games, team ballet ‘battles’, and lots of fun breaks between the serious bits… in case you’re wondering) but this was the first week when it felt like the dynamic had shifted.  For the first time this year, I felt successful with this group of kids and I didn’t get so frustrated with my own child.

After the class was over, I found myself reflecting on why things had shifted.  Was it because I had tried some new things that were more developmentally suited to that group of kids or was it because I was more well rested and better able to teach effectively and be present in the room?  How much of my frustration with the kids was really about me and my state of mind?  I had been blaming my negative experience of the class on them… but was it really all about me?

We get into this kind of thinking a lot in education.  Too often, I hear teachers talking about being “saddled with behaviours” in their classes, as though the children are choosing to overwhelm their teacher, as though their behaviour is a personal affront to the adults.  We talk about kids in a way that dehumanizes them, that ignores their individuality and that focuses exclusively on their deficits.  I have, many times, observed teachers who have become blind to the amazing things that children are doing right in front of them because they have become so focused on what their students aren’t doing that they can’t see anything else.  It’s one of the most challenging parts of my work: trying to push back against that negativity and advocate for the kids while at the same time not alienating the teacher.

Children are capable… what does that really mean?  Does it mean that we can never talk about the challenges we’re having with kids?  Does it mean that we have to adopt a Pollyanna tone in our conversations so that everything is about sunshine and robins who perch on your finger as you sing a merry tune?  No, I don’t think so.

A colleague once described me as a creative pragmatist, something I took as a great compliment. I don’t want to suggest that problems don’t exist; we all need to vent sometimes and it’s good to have people with whom you can let out all your frustrations. But when venting becomes the tone of all our conversations about children, we have a problem.  Children come to school with all sorts of experiences and it is our job, our mission, our vocation to help them learn.  They are children, we are adults; it’s not their fault, it’s just their turn.

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Courtesy of Anita Simpson @asimpsonEDU

This week has been an excellent reminder of the power of “yet” in my life both personally and professionally.  When things aren’t going well, I need to take a deep breath and remind myself that they’re not going well… yet.  Keeping that mental door open to the possibility of change makes all the difference in my perception of the problem.  As my perception changes, the problem changes too and I start to be able to see solutions that weren’t obvious when I was in full venting mode.  In order to be there for kids I need to be there… really in the room, wide awake (both literally and in the Maxine Greene way), and present, prepared to advocate for them even when it’s uncomfortable and prepared to make the changes in my own practice that will make a difference for them.  You’re the only teacher they have and so am I; what we do and what we say matters.  There are no mulligans in childhood.

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Cultural Navigation

I had an interesting experience this summer watching the musical Fiddler on the Roof.  Produced by one of our local community theatre groups, I had been following the rehearsal process with interest and was looking forward to finally seeing the show after hearing great reviews from friends.  Now, you should know that I’m Jewish and that I live in a small city where most people aren’t at all familiar with Judaism; for this Northern town, Jewish is exotic.

The show was very well done; beautifully staged and directed.  The performers were committed and deeply in role.  They were physically present and their characters were wonderfully embodied.  It was a great night of theatre.

But I had a strange reaction to the play, one I hadn’t expected.  At points during the evening, I felt very uncomfortable.  It was unsettling to watch actors pretending to light Shabbat candles and bless bread and wine as an act of entertainment.  These are rituals that I perform every week as part of our Shabbat meal either at home or at synagogue.  To see them on stage was very odd.

Later on in the play when Tevye’s third daughter, Chava, marries the non-Jewish Fyedka, the actor playing Tevye inserted the mourner’s kaddish prayer into the script, to make the point that Tevye now views his daughter as dead.  Again, I had that ticklish feeling of discomfort.  Here’s a very solemn prayer that we only say when we have a prayer quorum or minyan of 10 adult Jews (or 10 men, depending on your branch of Judaism) and there it was being performed on stage.  I found myself reflexively muttering “amein” under my breath at the appropriate moments.

My final moment of discomfort came during the scene when the soldiers arrive to advise the residents of Anatevka that they have to leave.  Behind me, a woman whispered “it’s the Germans.”  “No!”, I wanted to shout back… “It’s the Russians!”  Having that historical inaccuracy hang in the air, uncorrected, really bothered me.  It itched at me the whole way home.

Altogether, it was a revealing experience; this is what it’s like to have your culture on display, represented as entertainment… appropriated, to some extent.  Now, I’m not suggesting we halt all productions of Fiddler on the Roof.  It’s a great play; if I were a rich woman I’d see it again.  But I think it was a really good experience for me to go through that discomfort.

In the community where I teach, we are confronted daily with the legacy of First Nations residential schools.  We are struggling as a system to find ways to reach out to First Nations communities, to repair the damage that years of at best assimilationist and at worst genocidal policies has created.  One piece of that effort has been to ensure that there are opportunities for First Nations students attending our schools to have the opportunity to study their language and culture while at the same time building some cultural literacy among the non-native students too.  Sometimes, this work involves having First Nations teachers and elders presenting cultural teachings to classes, to familiarize all students with First Nations cultural beliefs and practices.

Last week, I was asked to come into a class to follow-up a cultural teaching with an arts-based activity.  Now, as far as I know, I have no First Nations heritage.  My children have Haudenosaunee heritage but, alas, not from me.  So it’s awkward, to say the least, to be in the position of having to support teachings that I’m not that familiar with and which don’t belong to me.  It’s additionally loaded with meaning because of the many ways that First Nations Art has been appropriated by the mainstream culture over the last several hundred years, including some particularly egregious examples in the past few years.  The optics of a white lady standing in front of a class “teaching” First Nations Art… it’s not good.

But there I was, trying to figure out a way to compliment a cultural teaching on the subject of long hair through a Visual Arts activity that wouldn’t just devolve into cultural theft.  I wanted to share with you what I came up with, not because I consider it some kind of authoritative solution to what will remain a challenge, but both because I think the wrestling itself is a meaningful process and because I think it’s important to share our discomfort and to respectfully ask for guidance.

One of the things I have taken away from my years in Kindergarten is a healthy respect for materials, guided by the practice in Reggio Emilia of establishing material-rich ateliers in schools.  I’ve been trying to position myself as an atelierista, a provider of materials, of techniques, of curation, but not an instructor with any particular end in mind.  So for a teaching about long hair (here are two videos if you want to learn more), I decided to work on the ideas of personal identity and expression of belonging that seemed central to the teaching while working with textiles, to link to the idea of hair.  I taught the students how to braid, presented the materials (beads, thread, pipe cleaners, and wicker) and off they went.   They produced amazing work that had symbolic meaning for them, using the cultural teaching as inspiration.  A perfect solution?  Likely no, but maybe a step forward.

long hair art

I will never forget the feeling of discomfort I experienced sitting in that darkened theatre watching Fiddler on the Roof.  I hope it remains fresh because it’s helping me to approach this aspect of my job with a greater sense of understanding and compassion.  I think it’s making me a better teacher.