The Dot- It’s What We Leave as a Legacy

She asked me tonight how the blog was doing. And I told her that it was not where I’d like it to be. After its second wind in early August and the contact I’d made with Arianna Huffington, I had been floating high on the hope that things would really fly. Really take off.  Just like they had twice before. So when she asked me tonight how things were going and my answer was a little lacklustre, I guess what I was really thinking was “Writing blogs is hard.  Writing blogs for people to read is hard. It’s too hard, sometimes.  Maybe I’ll never be the writer I want to be.”

Sometimes we just have to speak the words we really feel- not to embrace them.  But to release them.

A bit later on, I stumbled across a little electronic reminder that today is International Dot Day, in celebration of Peter Reynold’s book called The Dot. A book written in celebration of starting small and making one’s mark…one little dot at a time. One little word. One little sentence, one little phrase. One little blog article at a time. And when one starts small, they find that one thing leads to another.  One little blog piece leads to another little blog piece. To another and another. It’s kind of like putting one foot in front of the other.

You just don’t know where you’ll end up.

But you know where you’d like that destination to be.

I’ve always wanted to be an influencer. I’ve always wanted to make my mark on this world. Find my place in this world.  Be somebody.  But at the same time, I have thought to myself: “I don’t have everything all figured out yet…I don’t know everything there is to know about what I want to talk about.” So I found myself starting small. I first wrote vignettes about our life as a family. About my role as a mother, wife and woman.  And in time, I found healing in those words. Found healing in the process.  In the beginning, I wrote solely on the topic of joy.  For I was on a pursuit- a pursuit to find joy. And in letting myself lean into the pain, the sadness- and even the grief at times, I found the release I was searching for.  Found the healing. And I began to start over.

My dot has been this blog.

I want to thank everyone who reads this blog. Most of you have found me through “What Students Remember Most About Teachers” and for the success of that piece, I will forever be a jumbled mix of surprise and gratitude. For anyone who reads anything else you might find here, I offer a simple word of thanks. You have made the Dot I placed in this interweb of technology meaningful and worthwhile for me. My readers sustain me. You are the other half of this equation and I write as much for you as I do for myself.

In celebration of International Dot Day, I want to celebrate the dots we are placing on this world. Celebrate the work we do in our homes- as parents, children, siblings, cousins, friends, uncles, aunts, grandparents and guardians. And celebrate the service we offer up in our places of work- as employees, leaders, followers, doers, visionaries, role models, facilitators, mentors and steady, reliable workers. Paid and unpaid. In our communities, we must never forget to appreciate and recognize the countless volunteers, board members, trustees, committee reps, and more.  All making dots on our community landscape.  And in our world, as people who stand by one another and help one another through both the good and the bad.  Let us celebrate the dots we represent around the globe.

We are all making our mark. Let’s be proud of the dots we leave behind each day as a remembrance of our calling.  Our daily offering to this world of ourselves and our love.  And may we never undermine the importance of the dot our lives represent.

Each Dot is a beautiful mark of impact on this world that only we can make.

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What No Test Can See

I wasn’t prepared for it really. Wasn’t prepared at all. When the results were unveiled and the cursor moved down the Smart Board showing individual achievement results and my child’s name slowly rolled by- I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to see. Wasn’t prepared for the label, the category she was pegged in. I wasn’t prepared at all really. And as much as I dislike standardized testing on my kindergarten students- having fought to have the richness of their stories brought to bear on the results of recent moderated student writing, it really hits close to home when your own child comes up having not met grade level expectations. It brings the dislike to a whole new level.

Thinking about students and standardized testing. These two quotes from Clandinin and Connelly (2000) really put things into perspective for me tonight.  Here’s the first quote:

“We take for granted that people, at any given point in time, are in a process of personal change and that from an educational point of view, it is important to be able to narrate the person in terms of the process. Knowing some of the immediate educational history of the child- for instance, the lessons recently taught, as well as the larger narrative history of each child as that child moves from what was, to what is, to what will be in the future- is central to narrative educational thinking” (Clandinin and Connelly, 2000 p. 30).

And this one as well:

“In narrative thinking, an action is seen as a narrative sign. In our case, we intended that curricular actions be interpreted as classroom expressions of teachers’ and students’ narrative histories. For example, a child’s performance at a certain level on an achievement test is a narrative sign of something. It is necessary to give a narrative interpretation of that sign before meaning can be attached to it. Without understanding the narrative history of the child, the significance or meaning of the performance, the sign, remains unknown. Student achievement on a test does not in and of itself tell the tester or the teacher much of anything until the narrative of the student’s learning history is brought to bear on the performance” (Clandinin and Connelly, 2000 p. 30-31).

So with that in mind, here’s what people who decide those expectations don’t know about my daughter.

Her smile can light up a room.

She’s a loving friend, a loyal listener.

She loves to bake, invent, explore, create, move, dance, play and read.

She is wonderful with children.

She has an ear for music and is learning the trombone.

She loves to work with hair and can create braids that fall hopelessly apart in my hands.

She just made the volleyball team.

And what’s more: she might not have met expectations of some remote board who have determined that certain standards must be brought to bear, but I can say for fact that she liked that math class. She liked her teacher, loved her classmates, enjoyed the work and she never, ever complained.

She studied, worked hard, did her best and in the words of her teacher “did well’.  And confusingly, got great grades all year long.

And if her story were to be factored into those cold numbers that represent her on that isolated test representing one moment in time, there would be so much more to show for the amazing life that story of her’s represents.

She might not have met test expectations, but she will forever exceed those of her father and me.

We love her to the moon and back.  We always will.

And we’ll always be proud of our little girl.

When Love Walks Among Us

I am walking tonight- solo, as the Two Youngest have a friend over and Husband is on duty back on the home front. I miss my walking partner on nights like this. Nights when it feels I am the Lonesome Isolated- walking when the rest of the world is doing more important things, living out more exciting plans than I.  When the rest of the world is organizing and doing things and gathering in places and spaces- making plans that I have not been privy to. Having fun being connected and together.  All but me: I walk alone.  And so tonight, feet slap pavement sounding loudly while hearts are feeling a tad bit blue and rather lonely.

It must be awful to feel lonely day in and day out.

I called my friend later and checked in about an activity our children are both involved in tomorrow. And after I tell her how happy I am that her daughter Zoe* has taken my own daughter under her wing, now that she has arrived a full-fledged member of intermediate school, my friend happens to mention something to me off the cuff. Something I find interesting in light of my feelings tonight.  Here’s how the conversation went down.

She asks me first if I have heard the name Charissa* come up in conversation when talking with Daughter. No, I say. Oh?  Well Charissa has been hanging out with the girls too, she says (proceeding to tell me that Charissa is new to the school this year and that the girls had noticed her alone over lunch time). She continues to tell me that her daughter Zoe*- the same one that has taken care of my own dear one- took the initiative to go over to this young adult sitting by herself in the cafeteria and invite her to sit with her and her friends, one of which is Daughter. My friend mentions the fact that Charissa has a shaved head on one side and a couple different colors of neon framing her head on the other- not someone easy to mix in a group of unfamiliar faces. Maybe some of the other kids didn’t see her as potential. But Zoe* did.  And because she did, Charissa isn’t lonely anymore.

All it takes is one rock to start an avalanche.

That’s all it takes. And in like manner, all it takes is one person to begin a cascade of love. That love and care and compassion and concern- it’s a free fall after that one encounter. Because other people notice and become caught up in the action. It’s hard not to when you realize the possibilities. In choosing to love, we lose fear. In choosing care and concern, we lose disinterest. In choosing compassion, we eliminate indifference. By choosing grace we say no to cruelty. What’s not to choose?

We all feel alone sometimes. But it makes my heart sing to know that there are human beings like Zoe out there in the world noticing the faces of people who need love. We all need love, but some of us need an infusion of love in the in-between moments of life even more than others. For me, knowing that there are Zoes in this world makes me want to join the effort, get in on the love cascade. So that love can fall like rain and the lonely can feel they are with their people.

We all are their people.

And in thinking about Zoe and Charissa and all the other lonely, isolated solitary people in this world- myself included by times: it helps to know. We are not alone. We never are.  Not when Love walks among us.  And because we know this, we can then reach out in love to others- turning their isolation into connectedness.  Turning their feelings of separation into togetherness.

Creating a love cascade from a single act of kindness.

On Intelligence

Someone asked me once whether I felt a certain child we both knew had intelligence. Not a question I get asked every day. Not a question I appreciate, to be honest.  Needless to say, this question was alarming to me on many levels, not the least of which was that it was asked of me by another educator, another teacher. Someone who should know better than to ask. A person that should have known: intelligence is only part of the picture. One piece of the puzzle.  And thus known that there are many, many intelligences to consider when discussing intellect. Truth be told: a child’s intelligence is not a topic two professional educators should be discussing when there are hosts of other issues more deserving of their time and thought. More deserving of their endeavors.  For each student who shows up in our classrooms is capable and intelligent. And each has an intellect, having been endowed with God-given gifts, talent and ability.

Call that what you may; I call it intelligence. Because every child is able.  Every child CAN. And every child has capacity- ability, clarity and certain aptitudes- certain leanings toward learning and understanding. And every child has an interest in varying topics and knowledge that serves their particular intellect. When teachers make judgments about students in this way- as we often do when comparing one student to another student for purposes of understanding, assessment and evaluation, we quite often fail to see the best in these individuals. And thus fail to see these same students’ potential. The possibility that lies in their ability. Because here’s what we miss in these situations: the fact that everyone has intelligence- it’s just that we’ve been given different kinds.

Intelligence is obviously not the same in everyone.  Thank goodness for that.  What a boring world this would be.

Because intelligence has traditionally been measured by narrowly defined standards- standards that accept commonly accepted academic goals in subject areas like language and math as being the most important criteria by which to measure a person’s smarts, we often don’t recognize intelligence as being varied.  And by that, I should add: we don’t appreciate and value those variations. We do recognize intelligence as being widely interpreted, but we only favor certain interpretations. For the standards that prepare students for the workforce are what we typically equate with intelligence- those academic pursuits associated with our school system. These are the standards that prepare students for a life of employment and labour. Standards which are measured and compared and found wanting, but nevertheless- still pursued.  That’s the intelligence we value.  Not the wide breadth and depth and extent of what intelligence CAN be.

It’s time we saw intelligence for what it truly is: diverse and wholly worthy in it’s variation.  It’s time we remembered that everyone has intelligence.

That student with the blank stare in your history class- they are a gifted sketch artist.

That child who is only approaching math expectations on the standardized test you just issued- she is a brilliant gymnast.

That boy who never answers a question in class and seems to fade into the woodwork- he’s a fabulous piano player.

And that bubbly girl who talks unceasingly every time you turn your back- she’s someday going to blow your mind with how she’ll end up changing the world.

We can’t believe fully in our students and simultaneously feel pity for them. Care is not pity. It isn’t weak-spined, sympathy that reaches out to the less-thans- the weak and deficient. No, that’s not care. Care is strong enough to surmount the odds. Care calls us to believe in the best each child has to offer- and it requires of us a new way of thinking.  And care knows better than to feel sorry for anyone when believing in them is so much better.

It’s time for a renewal of sorts.

We must care enough for our students to see their ingrained intelligences, whatever form those intelligences might take. We must care enough to care to change our own narrow forms of thinking.  And care enough to be open-minded, gracious, loving and hopeful in our perspectives.  We simply must care enough.  The rest will take care of itself.

After all, when we believe that all children are intelligent, we offer hope and future to our students beyond the narrowly-defined futures that await them within traditional understandings about intelligence.  All students have intelligence. It’s up to us to help them discover how.

And it’s up to them to use their varying gifts and talents, knowledge and understanding…to make this world a better place.

Enlightened Witnesses

In her book “all about love: new visions”, author bell hooks refers to psychoanalyst Alice Miller’s writing and work. In particular, hooks is taken with Miller’s concept of the “enlightened witnesses” present in the lives of most adults- particularly those of us who experienced pain and needless suffering in childhood. “Enlightened witnesses” are those individuals who have shown a certain kindness, tenderness and concern in the person undergoing difficulty so as to restore that individual’s hope and belief in the good in their life. These witnesses are thus persons who offer “hope, love and guidance to a wounded child in any dysfunctional setting” (hooks, 2000, p. 234). So as to restore belief that the individual has something of worth to live for. Something of value to strive for. And something of significance to show for their life.

Enlightened witnesses can be those who themselves have risen from the depths. Individuals who have overcome great odds and great adversity. Sometimes this is the very thing required to create lasting empathy and feeling. For when we identify, we can extend ourselves that much more.

Of my many enlightened witnesses, Alice was one of the most memorable. My “adopted” mother, she was an elegant woman with immaculate nails and gorgeous ebony skin.  She and her father lived in a neighborhood on the far side of town where they owned a little piece of land that boasted lush flower gardens and a bountiful vegetable garden.  I came to live with Alice when I was seventeen years old.  Our family had to make an unexpected move in my Grade 12 year, and I was not ready to leave my childhood home town in the final year of high school.  The dilemma posed for my parents was this: to allow me to stay in the area and graduate with my friends or to force me to move against my will and thus inflict on me feelings of resentment and anger.  They, with love and open-mindedness, allowed me to stay behind.  The next issue was deciding with whom I would stay.  After exhausting a list of possibilities, we thought of my mother’s dear friend who happened to be unattached to any other familial responsibilities, and the decision was made to send me to live with Alice and her father, Stanley.

Prior to my knowing, Alice had indicated to my mother that she was more than willing to let me live at her house.  However, being that she was a reflective woman, she was mindful that there might be unforeseen concerns on the horizon.  Most obvious of which was that I was an active, vivacious teenager on the go and in need of transportation, food and supervision.  But, a more subtle concern to Alice was the slight issue of my skin colour.  For I was as white as flour paste compared to her beautiful dark skin.  We had different histories, different stories, and different cultural understandings of self and our place in this world.  She expressed to my mother, unbeknownst to me, that she was worried about our differences.  My mother assured her that this was a non-issue in our books.  But still Alice fretted over it. In spite of these concerns, it was decided that Alice was the best fit for my needs.  So I packed my bags, even as my family were unpacking theirs in another province, and settled into a little room on the far side of town where I lived with Alice and her father for the remainder of my final school year.

After Alice and I had been under the same roof for quite some time, we found ourselves one day in the kitchen doing dishes together.  I wiped the wet bowls and plates while she carefully washed.  There was an easy banter between us, when out of the blue, Alice asked me an odd question. “Do you mind staying here?”

“Why?” I asked, looking at her strangely.

“Because we’re Black,” she said pointedly.

“You’re not black,” I replied, looking at her strangely, not knowing what to say, but thinking that option was surely not one of my choices.

“Yes, I am.” she said looking at me square on.  Challenging me with her eyes.  I looked at her as well, and then I shrugged.  Not flippantly, not disrespectfully- just nonchalantly.  I held her gaze and then smiled.  And as soon as I did, something happened.  We both started laughing.  And we laughed hard.   Because truthfully, it did not matter anymore. None of it did.  It didn’t matter that I was white and she was black. I was a teen and she was a middle-aged woman. I was the tenant and she the landlord.  It didn’t matter. We released these differences, and let them wash away as cleanly as the grease on the plates in the sink.

We were simply Alice and Lori after that.  And that was that.

Over the year that I lived with Alice, our relationship became more than just functional.  We became close- fast friends.  And then in time, a deeper relationship developed.  She became, in essence, a surrogate mother to me and continued to be one over the years that followed.  As I graduated from university, and later got married, Alice was there to share my joy.  In time, she made a visit to my home in Prince Edward Island after the birth of my second child.  Our bond continued to solidify over the years, and we remained close in spite of the miles that separated us. She died just after Mother’s Day in 2007 while I was expecting our last child.  It grieves me that my four children never really knew their surrogate grandmother.   She took great interest in the older three during their early years, calling often to find out how everyone was doing.  Each birthday and special holiday was marked by cards and gifts specially selected by Alice for each child according to their interests and preferences.  She had a knack of picking out things that suited the receiver to a T.

Alice’s influence on me over the years has given me pause for reflection, not the least of which, for reflecting on what it means to be a mother.  Although she never had an opportunity to birth and raise children of her own, she certainly was a mother-at-heart to me until she passed on.  To me, Alice epitomizes what a mother truly is: a nurturing caregiver with the attitude to parent those in their protection.  Alice had the desire to be a mother.  She never had the opportunity to have children of her own, and this pained her, I am sure.   But she was everything a mother should be and more. And in my time of need, she was an enlightened witness to my grief of the loss in my life, not the least of which was my childhood home and family. My own mother and father living in another province.  In my heart, I believe that I was part of Alice’s reason for why she was placed here on this earth.  I needed her influence in my life: to challenge me to accept people for who they are, where they are and how they are.  But on a personal level, I just needed her love. And she gave it freely.

She was an enlightened witness- my special angel here on earth: and I am forever grateful for her legacy of love and hope.

Believe

They showed up one morning. Could have been any morning, really. And there they were. Bright eyes, smiling. Hello, Mrs. Gard and then the pause. Waiting for my response. Their faces searching mine for that encouraging smile.

Do I believe in them?

He fell asleep every single day in my history class. The room was dark and calming, a glow from the overhead bulb the only light. His long hours at the fish plant gave him little time to sleep. Little time to be the teenager he should have been.  Little time to care about facts and dates.

Did I believe in him then?

The boy and his mother walk the halls. It’s his first day of school ever, coming up this Thursday. There are fears and worries, but mostly just excitement. Everything is new and inviting. School is cool when you’re four.

Do I believe in him?

Do I believe… in them?

Teachers: we have children who will walk into our lives, into our halls and into our classrooms in the days ahead. They will have stories and experiences, expectations and worries- hopes and fears. They will have dreams. Dreams they believe in.

Do I believe in them?

We have children coming who will challenge our patience, try our tolerance, question our leading, test our resolve. Children coming who will make us laugh and make us cry. And some who will make us want to shelter them with everything we’ve got. These children- they will work their way into our hearts. Will work their way into our world. We will come to love them like our very own. We will teach them, listen to them, care for them, nurture them, inspire them, learn from them, hope for them. And when we have to, we will fight for them.

And all because we believe in them. Because we care.

Do you believe?

Do you believe in them?

For if you do, they will believe in themselves too. They will believe they can.

And because they can, they will:

Learn.

Grow.

Understand.

Discover.           

Mature.

Develop.

Into the amazing, creative human beings they were meant to be. And they too will inspire and encourage others to believe in themselves. To believe that they too CAN.  And all this because YOU believed. Because we as teachers believed in them.

Believe.

Because that’s one small step we teachers can take to make the incredible happen.

Dear Parents

Dear Parents,

The last days of summer are already upon us. Where did the time go? School supplies have been purchased and tucked away, ‘first-day-back’ clothes folded and lain out on dressers in anticipation of the big day. Lunchbox items stocked up in the pantry. New sneakers, new lunch bags, new backpacks, new schedules. Newness. Everything just seems new and fresh when school arrives again in the fall. And while all this freshness and novelty can seem exciting, I am sure that the newly formed jitters and fidgety butterflies which already are surfacing in both little and big tummies can at times be an unwelcome addition to the arrival of fall.

{Disclosure: don’t tell anyone… but even teachers get butterflies. :)}

With all those little anxieties and worries at the front of my mind, I want you to know, Mom: I am going to do my best to watch over your precious child while they are in my care. I’ve got your back, Dad. Your child is in good hands. I am going to be there for your child this year- you have my word. Because while these children I have been given are in my class, they are my kids. They are my little brood. I will be there to help them find their way, learn the ropes, discover new and exciting things as well as to watch them develop and grow.

Your child is already special to me.

Let me assure you- we will make this time spent at school worthwhile. For I believe these little bodies and souls are full of possibility. Full of potential. And I want you to know that I see this- I know this to be true within my heart. I know that your child is a capable, gifted, clever little person with a unique personality, mind and body. Your child is special. I want you to know that I will recognize this in your child- it will be my mission. And I will work on your behalf so that your son or daughter never forgets what you have taught them from the very start: how precious and valued they truly are.

My role in their life this year will in no way undermine your most important role as their first and most influential teacher. I have said before and I will say it again:

You are the very best teacher your child can come to know. You have taught your child well — taught them about life and love and joy and sorrow. Taught them to be honest and kind. Taught them to be thoughtful and generous. Taught them to care for others. You have taught them. And my hope is that your life continues to be the living textbook that your child reads the most avidly. May it be among the most inspiring books they ever open!

As a teacher, I view the children in my class- indeed, in our school, as if they were my very own. Your child is my child while under my watch. I take that responsibility seriously- much the same as I do raising my own four children. There is a trust in passing one’s child over to another adult- a trust based on mutual understanding. The understanding is this: you give me your most precious treasure to look after all day long, and I will care for your treasure while they are in my care.

I will be there for them.

So when you place your precious loved one on the bus in the morning or drop them off at my classroom door, I want you to know that I do not take this responsibility I’ve been given lightly. And might I add- when those dear ones are returned to you again, when those precious children arrive home at the end of the day, I won’t stop caring. They are still in my heart. They are still on my mind. They are important to me. And they will always have a place in my heart. Please never forget: I will strive to care for your child this year in the best ways I know how.

Tenderly.
Gently.
Lovingly.
Compassionately.
Truthfully.
Deliberately.
Relevantly.
Patiently.

Parents, thank you for trusting me with this responsibility; it is my honor and privilege to be your child’s teacher this year. May it be for us all a year of wonder, nurture and discovery.