I Wonder…

I Wonder…

Myra missed a day of class every week, and many weeks she missed two out of four days. She didn’t offer any reasons for missing, just breezed in the next day with a smile and settled in to work. She seemed engaged and interested, and then didn’t show up the next day.

I was at a loss. Clearly she liked the readings we were doing in class, liked the discussions, and quickly set to work on writing and other assignments. I didn’t think she was ill. I knew she didn’t have kids. Her abysmal attendance frustrated me no end, and my judgmental self played a tape in my head: “She treats my class like a drop-in fun fair!” “Clearly not motivated to pass the course.” “Why should I work to catch her up on what she missed when she deigns to return?” “She doesn’t respect the work I do to prep this class.” 

I can’t fault myself or anyone else when those instant judgments float into our minds. They hang in the air around us, waiting to be applied to any situation. And of course we take student behaviour personally. We are persons, after all. Still, when  I am teaching there is nothing I want more than to succeed at my job, so I work on noticing those judgements as they float by, keeping them to myself, and cultivating curiousity about what is going on in the situation and in my head.

Myra’s insouciance did not square with my mental monologue. If she had come back to class sullen, if she hadn’t made any effort when she did come, if she had made excuses, then I might not have noticed how negative my thoughts about the situation were. That is how assumptions sneak by me: they come camoflauged by context.

In this case the picture in my head, of a student unmotivated and disrespectful, did not jibe with the reality in front of me. And that incongruence shook me out of my complacence. It piqued my curiosity.

Putting my judgments aside for a moment, I had a private chat with her. I said that I enjoyed her contributions to the class, and that she was more than capable of doing the work. However, I was worried that her poor attendance would mean that she would not pass the class, and I found it frustrating to try to catch her up every time she came back after an absence.

Then I left a little space of silence…

She told me that she lived with her cousin, her cousin’s husband and their two young school-age children. She did not pay rent, and it was understood that she would babysit and help out in exchange for room and board. Frequently the couple would oversleep, and when they woke up it was a mad scramble for them to get to work. It was a scramble for the kids, too, and often they would miss the school bus. In that case, the parents would go to work, the kids would stay home from school and Myra would have to stay home to look after the kids. She didn’t like it, but there was nothing she could do…

I asked her to come up with some possible solutions to the problem of getting herself to school. After some thought she said that if she had her own alarm clock she could wake up in time to get the kids to the bus, and get herself to class, no matter what the parents were doing. But she didn’t know how to use an alarm clock.

I said I could help with that, so she went out and bought an alarm clock, I showed her how to set it; she got to class more often, and passed the course. 

It was my curiosity that made a little space for us to meet and solve the problem of her absences. In all my judgmental monologues I never once said, “She doesn’t even care enough to buy an alarm clock!” because I didn’t know she didn’t have an alarm clock! Curiosity opened up a space so she could bring that piece of information into the picture and we could work together to find a solution. Myra’s sunny disposition jolted me into wondering what was making her miss so much, since she obviously liked to come to class. That curiosity led me to an outcome I could never have imagined.

“Curiosity is the heart and foundation of our approach…. We have to have curiosity, or we are lost – lost in judgment of ourselves or others, entangled in shame or blame.”   Jenny Horsman: Curiosity

Power Share

Power Share

all in it togetherHere’s another story about sharing power with adult literacy students, to go with the one I posted last week called “Who’s in Charge Here?” Continue reading

Who’s in Charge Here?

Who’s in Charge Here?

Arriving Saltspring Island photo credit: irfy via photopin cc

Arriving Saltspring Island

I was just one of the crowd of people on the trip—old and young, fat and thin, First Nations and white people, male and female. We were off by bus and ferry to Saltspring Island for the day. My job was to blend in, to let myself be represented by students. They were in charge, and I was along for the ride. I didn’t know it would be so hard.   Continue reading

The Grammar Hatchet

The Grammar Hatchet

Actually me, in front, 70s.

Actually me, in front, demonstration, with Nancy Rosenberg
Ottawa Citizen, Apr. 7 1980

I had a taste, once, of someone using grammar to do a hatchet job on something that was full of meaning for me. Continue reading

Survival Strategies Come First

Survival Strategies Come First

Jenny HorsmanThe assignment was to make a graphic representation of the plot development in a novel we were reading together in class. To this end, I had assembled some supplies on a table in front of the room: various kinds of large sheets of paper, felt pens, pencil crayons, glue sticks, stickers and labels of the kind scrapbookers use, some collage materials, etc.

We talked about various possibilities, such as diagrams, time lines, and flow charts, Continue reading

Sylvia Ashton-Warner

Sylvia Ashton-Warner

Sylvia Ashton-Warner with children in classroom, ca 1951 Reference Number: PAColl-2522-2-001

Sylvia Ashton-Warner with children in classroom, ca 1951
Reference Number: PAColl-2522-2-001

I have roots in New Zealand. Not physical roots—none of my ancestors came from New Zealand, or, as far as I know, ever visited there. But the roots of my ideas about teaching came from Sylvia Ashton-Warner, whose book Teacher I read in the mid ’60’s. She has been the single most important influence on my teaching practice.

She wrote about teaching pre-school and primary school children, and as far as I know never taught adult literacy or wrote about helping adults improve their literacy skills. But her ideas about creativity, what she called “organic teaching,” her respect for and celebration of the ideas that came from her students, not from curriculum and received texts, all of which went along with solid practical advice about classroom management, schedules, and “discipline,” spoke to me when I was in training to become an elementary school teacher, and came back to me when, much later, I started in adult literacy. Continue reading

What’s Wrong with This Picture?

Dear Mom,
You are always wondering what my job is and what I do for work. A while back I worked with a group of adults in a research project who listed all their needs before they could return to regular school. It was a huge list. What I do is try to support the programs that offer learning to these adults.
Today I am in a swank hotel in Vancouver, surrounded by glitz, food and chocolate, talking about Literacy.
What Is wrong with this picture?
Dee Continue reading

I’m Sorry…

I’m Sorry…

temperPete was in my class that term, a student who described himself with pride as a “recovering asshole.” Most days it seemed to me that he was enjoying being stuck in the recovering stage, and wasn’t doing very much to move towards finally being “recovered.”

Still, we jostled along. He participated in class activities, and I held him accountable for treating others with respect.

One day in class he made a remark about women that seemed particularly aimed at me, and I lost it. I dressed him up one side and down the other. I can’t remember what he said, or what I said, but I remember that he shut up really quickly, and the other students tried to look like they were somewhere else.

I went home feeling ashamed of myself. Continue reading

Getting Out of My Own Way

Getting Out of My Own Way

Reading a book

Some moments just stick with you–the flash of insight that marks a big change. A pivotal moment.

I am teaching Level 2 reading, and have passed out an interesting article from the West Coast Reader. Like many mornings, like many teachers, I start by introducing some words from the story that I think people may have trouble with. I write one of the words on the board, and as a group we read it, talk about its meaning, its pronunciation, its relationship to other words we know–you know the drill.

Continue reading