On the verge

It was a week that started with people sharing memes about the convergence of the full moon, the time change and Friday the 13th – brace yourselves teachers, we’re in for a wild ride! How quaint that all seems now. On Wednesday morning we woke up to the news that our city had its first confirmed case of COVID-19. Suddenly, the full moon didn’t seem to matter any more.

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Image by Duncan Miller from Pixabay

We got through Wednesday and Thursday, remaining calm, comforting anxious kids, parents and staff; we were the calm squad. We handed out disinfecting wipes, cajoled kids into washing their hands (yes, again) and tried to stay positive. We mostly succeeded. Thursday afternoon brought the news that all schools would close for an additional two weeks after March Break. Is it possible to be both surprised and not surprised at the same time? If it is, I was. I felt both shock that such drastic action was being taken and relief that we were doing something concrete. I’m a dedicated hand-washer at the best of times; the impulse to do something more was becoming overwhelming, and now, we were.

But that thing we’re doing is, well, oddly, nothing. So far, less than two days into this social distancing experiment, I’m already wondering how to fill the time. I have assignments to complete and that’s probably what I should be writing right now but I’m finding it hard to think about anything other than my experience this past week.

Some things that surprised me:

  • The calm – There are moments when I’m extraordinarily proud to live in this country and this week was one of them. I thought it was very possible that the volume of early-morning sick calls would rise incrementally after the news of the first positive local case broke. After all, everyone was anxious and there are still a lot of unknowns in this rapidly evolving situation. I was wrong. Teachers and support staff came to work, they gave kids the consistency and normalcy they needed and they supported each other with humour and grace. It was Canadian dutifulness at its best.
  • The kindness: Staff baked treats, parents brought in chocolates, people were extra-gentle with each other. When a child had a cough or a runny nose teachers sent them to the office to get checked but with a noticeable undertone of deliberate calm so as not to upset either the child or their classmates. Crises don’t always bring out the best in people; this one did.
  • The work: On Friday morning, as we all digested the news that it would be at least three weeks before we were allowed to come back to school, teachers set to work organizing learning activities for their students. My daughter’s teacher and her grade partners put together a fantastic set of resources for students to work through and they did it all in record time. While my daughter may well wish they were less efficient, she will have lots to keep her busy over the next few weeks. I’m very grateful. They didn’t have to go the extra mile on a day that was already full, but they did.

So, I’m here, on the verge of something and also of nothing. With so much to do and yet nothing to do. With a pantry full of food and an empty calendar. It’s a privileged position but not a comfortable one – unease is the daily constant.

Often when I feel a bit unmoored, I re-read books that have been touchstones for me. Recently, I’ve re-read the last three books in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne series (Anne of Ingleside, Rainbow Valley and Rilla of Ingleside) and Hugh MacLennan’s The Watch That Ends the Night.  The shadow of both world wars stalk those novels and it anchors me to remember the enormity of the challenges we’ve faced together as we rise to face this current one. My grandfather was fighting Nazis at 17 years old, surely we can survive a little isolation? My children are less than impressed by my historical musings: “Mom, that’s not fun!” Fair enough.

Two quotes have popped out at me:

There is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.  ~ Hugh MacLennan

The body grows slowly and steadily but the soul grows by leaps and bounds. It may come to its full stature in an hour. ~ L.M. Montgomery

These are chestnuts, old ones, and whether they’ve aged well or not is a matter of opinion. But my experience so far in this crisis is that they’re true, both of them. I’ve seen souls growing by leaps and bounds this week and I’ve witnessed the complexity of our choices under pressure. What the next few weeks will bring, aside from more inevitable complaints about my lack of fun, I don’t know. I’m hoping it continues to bring out the better angels of our nature and that we manage to pull together, under duress, to protect each other.

In praise of simple toys.

We’re into week 3 of the school year.  Friendships are being forged, routines established, and materials explored.  As I’ve watched the children explore the room over the past few weeks, I’ve been reminded of the value of simple toys.  Because I teach kindergarten, people in my life (parents at school, acquaintances, relatives) often approach me to either ask me or tell me about toys they’ve purchased or are thinking of purchasing for their children.  Increasingly, these are electronic toys.  It’s not unusual to hear that someone has bought their child an ‘app’ or a child-marketed tablet because they think it’s educational.  They think (and are encouraged to do so by the marketers) that these toys will give their child a leg-up, that they will be more advanced than their peers once they get to school.  They also think that successful completion of these programs indicates that their child has learned something important, particularly to their school success.  Now… before you read what I’m about to write, I want to tell you that I’m not a perfect parent, far from it.  On Tuesday night, I was so sick that I sat my children down in front of the miracle that is the Treehouse channel, put dinner in the oven and prayed that my husband would get home soon.  I well understand the power of electronics to occupy children, to keep them quiet and subdued, and to give adults a little relief.  I’m reminded of what Rachael Lynde tells Diana in Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne’s House of Dreams when they’re discussing the ubiquity of the Eaton’s Catalogue in late 19th century Canada.

“Well, they’re splendid to amuse children with,” said Diana. “Fred and Small Anne look at the pictures by the hour.”

I amused ten children without the aid of Eaton’s catalogue,” said Mrs. Rachel severely.

I don’t want to be the Rachael Lynde in this story.  I know that all of this gadgetry is amusing.  I know it occupies kids and keeps them out from under your feet when you’re cooking dinner.  But… educational, brain-developing, mind-stretching?  I doubt it.  I think that success in completing those programs mostly means that you’ve successfully learned how to complete the program.  I’ve met children who can identify letters by tapping on them in an app but can’t then identify them in a book.  It’s largely a conditioning system… ring a bell and the dog salivates… tap the screen and you get a song or a picture or a digital sticker.  It’s a very effective reward system but the learning is dubious.   I don’t think they have any more value than a paper worksheet; you can scroll down to see how I feel about those.  We have some very simple toys in our classroom.  Have a look at the amazing variety of things the children have been doing with them in the past few days.  They aren’t expensive, they last forever, you can play with them in many different ways, many of them are quite beautiful to look at and they all stretch the mind and imagination.  They provoke problem solving and social negotiation with other children and best of all… they’re fun!

Wooden blocks... need I say more?
Wooden blocks… need I say more?
They all start out as cubes but they hinge differently.
They all start out as cubes but they hinge differently.

More architecture blocks

Wow... another amazing simple toy.
Wow… another amazing simple toy.

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All sorts of learning here.  Building stable structures with unusual elements, relative size, shapes...
All sorts of learning here. Building stable structures with unusual elements, relative size, shapes…

Rainbow Arches, wooden blocks and magnetic tiles the view from above

balance, stability, largest to smallest
balance, stability, largest to smallest