In the Birch Trees

In the Birch Trees, Pen & Ink, @andCreative
In the Birch Trees, Pen & Ink, @andCreative

During a day of learning for new teachers in November we were deeply moved by an incredible human during the keynote.  I sat in that room with him and I can only explain what happened to me as shockingly unexpected.  Laughing, crying and suddenly knowing that I needed him, in that moment in my life as a human, I needed that time with him and with myself.  I hadn’t known.  He pulled 80 people in close to him with his generosity, his culture, his children and his way of being, we did not want it to end.  A quiet, humble Indigenous man brought us to a place with the words that come before all others entewarihwayenawakonhake. The front matter – the words which come before everything else.  I don’t know why a story about his young daughters, who are the first students in 60 years to go to school as children whose first language is Mohawk, walking in the woods speaking their traditional language created space where not one of those 80 people were on their phone and where I could hear the breathing of the person seated beside me, but I knew it was big.  He told us, “they know who they are.”  It was big. He pulled us in by giving us who he was.  Wa’tkonnonhwara:ton – I am giving all of myself.  His language and his children among the birch trees held us deeply and sent us into ourselves.  At some point in that 90 minutes we met him in the birch trees and we did not want to leave. I was deeply envious that his daughters were learning with their father in that way and I asked myself if I truly knew who I was?  I don’t think I was the only one who needed more time in that space to think about and to talk about how I was feeling.

We let the schedule take a hit and we ran over with our keynote.  We had workshops organized that individuals had signed up for – 40 minutes each became 30 minutes each.  We wanted to offer a diversity and a tasting.  We also had to shorten some learning and reflecting after lunch that was specifically around well-being as we wanted to honour the presenters who had prepared the learning sessions for teachers.  The feedback was a lightning bolt.  The sessions were too short and more time in each session was to dig in and to take time to ask questions and to plan how this could look in classrooms.  In removing the session on well-being we were clearly informed we had fallen short,  “I was disappointed,” to “aren’t you supposed to model the priority of well-being for the system?”  

Our keynote brought them in so very close and we had put them right back to where they started before they arrived.  They were rushed, not listened to and we had essentially shouted that the stuff was more important than their well-being and their learning.  The number of hours to plan and execute that was ridiculous.  The team was huge. We only had so much time.  It left me wondering about the purpose for learning and considering the words that come before all others; the front matter. I went back to the curriculum.  I took Sandra Herbst with me.  I have been in a room with her 5 times.  Each of those times she waved the front matter of our curriculum at us.  “Go back here she said.  It’s all in there. You will find all of the space you need.” I thought she was talking about co-constructing success criteria.

Front Matter of Curriculum

It was there.  Our beautiful keynote speaker was there, the frustrated educators were there, The Beast was there and I was there.  

In learning with our new teachers we managed to skip the front matter and jump right to the achievement chart and the expectations.  It mattered until it didn’t.  

We have been asking, as a province, where does wellness actually fit in the curriculum?  Teachers can barely to fit the curriculum into the curriculum.   The understanding that more students in front of teachers than ever before are struggling with their own well-being is daunting.  The profound cyclical wave of a teacher trying to reach every student by teaching every student and meeting them where they are while those students are struggling with well-being is unyielding.  Unyielding. That effect on teachers is palpable, visible and traceable.  Teacher absence and wellness are not quiet discussions anymore.  

I am in the Birch trees, moving slowly, thinking deeply about myself and making sense of myself in the world.  I am thinking critically with others as I do this.  Because I took time to do it, I feel differently.  I need time to talk about it and make sense of it.  I can make sense of it as I learn with other perspectives.  If I don’t take that time I will have learned nothing at all.

-25, 35 days until Spring.  It feels far away as although our weeks whiz past, the dark lingers…

A:  The front matter is so rich and full of the why.  Is it truly part of our curriculum or left behind?  I’m wondering if the theories, beliefs and fundamental understandings are disconnected from the doing.  Or some might say the realities of the classroom.

K: I think different parts are disconnected and different for everyone.  The front matter of the curriculum is very valuable but how do we assess that and use it as a part of our teaching responsibilities.  It feels a bit vague because it doesn’t have a unit name nor is it in the achievement chart.  It sounds lovely but how?  “…high degree of scientific literacy while maintaining a sense of wonder about the world around them.”

A: I’m running through a long, long list of lovely but how.  Compare our need for practical to our keynote and his daughters in the forest, thinking together, and being open to wonder.  The lovely is clearly my work as a parent.

K: We cannot seem to bridge the divide between the lines for the answer and what we expect and the wonder.  I have seen a shift in educators who have come to learn with us.  I saw it last week.  The came for reading for meaning and I did not use the words reading strategies once. Not one educator asked throughout the day were we going to look at “strategies.”  They felt so connected to the text because of the conditions set by the front matter of the curriculum and their own wonder that their own thinking was the giant bank of every strategy used to make meaning from text.  They brought themselves to the text. “Literacy is about more than reading or writing – it is about how we communicate in society. It is about social practices and relationships, about knowledge, language and culture.”


A:  You go to a day of learning that is 100% keynote, all feels, and completely front matter.  Satisfied?

K: Not remotely. The keynote gives us something to think about, to relate to ourselves and to feel.  We somehow thought that that made us ready to learn.  If we had been paying attention and not worked up about the schedule, the deepest learning was right there, in front of us and within us.  A workshop about something else extinguished that learning. It became about the doing.

A:  The doing is expected.

K:  It doesn’t have to be separate.  It needs to be real.  It needs to be about who we are.  It’s all right there in the curriculum.  We scheduled wonderful workshops for the educators.  I wonder who those were for?  We think the strategy, the tool, the technology and the stuff are going to make us better teachers.  We are going to reach more kids.

A:  Kids can smell it on us.  What we are trying to do to them.  I think we have a teacher voice in the classroom to tell and instruct.  It’s entirely possible that kids might want to know the why, the front matter.  If we listen to our inside voices we might also feel.

K: The group of educators in November called us out on that very thing.  Our keynote brought himself and not once did he instruct us.  We felt deeply and we were changed.  There was need for that, they told us.  How do we then offer additional learning after the keynote for teachers?  They smelled it on us too. They felt devalued somehow, short-changed.

A: Manipulated.  I think the doing is two things.  It’s compliance and check-boxing the curriculum. And it’s an attempt to make oneself look good.  Alternately, the doing might actually be an action.  Something that you are compelled to do because you know why.

K: I did two different workshops that day after the keynote.  We tried to be flashy and showed great stuff for their students and for their classrooms. If the person at the front is the only one understanding the why, there will be no action outside of that learning.  My why is not enough as the teacher.

A: I’m not sure that she understands the why either.  It’s too lovely… leap.

K: But I am wrapped up deeply in what I am showing teachers.  It’s innovative and worthwhile.  I know this.  But on that day, it didn’t matter.  We rushed, we rammed and we did.  We didn’t ask. We changed the game with our keynote and then we changed back and they knew it…leap.

A:  Yes we did ask.  They wanted well-being and they wanted doing.  How do you do well-being?

K: I didn’t know until Joe.  I found it in the front matter.  I can tell you I found it in working with our educators.  But, I will also say that I didn’t know you could do well-being.  You have to feel it, it then comes with you as you build understanding and write on the lines.  It’s ourselves.

A:  If you hold beliefs (like those presented in the front matter), then your actions will reflect them.  You, Kelly, do hold those beliefs.  Pulling your learners close is who you are.

K: I didn’t know that it was more than a condition.  I have learned (thank you) that the feeling is the learning.  It’s who I bring to the lines.  But, I am an old dog, the structures in place, the achievement chart and that data can make me rush.  It has never been about more, yet somehow we think more will move everything.  I was still, in one place for 90 minutes and I moved farther than I had in a year.  He barely spoke above a whisper. Who I am is the answer.

A: Tell them.

K: Do we have to tell them that that’s what it is? Have learners been conditioned for the teacher voice?  How do they know it’s real?

A:  I don’t know.  How do lofty and lovely become real?

K: We create something new…not just from me and not just from the learners.  I think real is the space between the two.  My student senators sat with Dr. Susan Dion.  Just before that, they spent a few minutes trying to make sense of her timeline of true Canadian history.  They were in shock.  Everything she told them – through herself was a vast contradiction of their past learning..  They spoke only to each other to make sense of this.  I documented those conversations and gave them back.  I never once said do you have any questions.  They then met with Dr. Dion.  They took their thinking into that conversation with her.  I am their teacher  supervisor.  They didn’t look at me once.  I didn’t hold any answers for them, nor did I offer.  I did not make sense of my own learning until later that evening.  I was changed because of Dr. Dion but I was also changed because of them. I cannot recall a teacher voice but I can recall telling myself to keep mine out of the learning.

A:  The suppression of your own voice empowers their voices.  Are they capable of bringing it back to who they are?  Walking away from that experience into the everyday stuff holding what they learned?  Using it?  Of course they are.  They are being and becoming.  Workshops might be time and space for being and becoming, not what is predefined, but who you are.  It’s like an intentional heal, like a walk in the woods, a cry in the car.  Everyday stuff bashes me around.  I’m not perfectly resilient.  Definitely not.  What if we expected an intentional heal from being in the room?  That would be me giving all of myself.

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