My Squad: the Uganda Banda Sistahs

That time of year approaches when any administrator, especially new to a building, devotes time and energy to intentionally designing opportunities to create team, as soon as staff walk in the door.  Bringing together new and experienced educators into a cohesive team with a shared goal to make a place of belonging for every student can be a daunting task. Now try throwing 29 strangers, aged 20s to 60s, from 7 different countries into a foreign context, where they eat, sleep, and work together 24/7 and are tasked with nurturing their own team of teachers too…it has all the unpredictable potential of a memory-making nightmare conference camping trip.

One might assume that a teacher identity would unify the group, until you consider your own past experiences with a variety of staff. In Uganda, the role of being a teacher did connect us to some degree. However, the vast diversity of values and beliefs around pedagogy, assorted backgrounds in education systems, range of years of experience, all contributed to a wide spectrum of ideas brought to the table and conversations.  One critical way LRTT embraces this diversity is by pre-trip webinars and e-learnings but more importantly an LRTT guide that outlines the mission and equips the team to work towards the same goals.  Once you land on the ground, LRTT leaders also respond to who’s in front of them.

As an administrator, I am reminded that we are all responsible for building a team.  Sure, leaders can create optimal conditions, join together different teachers for different purposes, provide prompts that reveal connections, and offer food, of course.  But sometimes, you need to let relationship building take its natural course.  You find your peeps. You don’t have to love everyone, but you do have to be willing to work with everyone. An ultimate shared clear goal supercedes any personality or style differences.  Even in disagreement or frustration, despite/in spite of the challenge, creativity can flourish.  During our time in Uganda, LRTT leaders and its fellowship design proactively sought to combine different groupings of fellows, through PD preparation, school assignment, excursions, scavenger hunts, trivia nights, van seating…you name it.  There was a myriad of ways to get to know each other.

If I try to connect the dots back to how me and my peeps established our squad, I remember the first day we arrived at the lodge…

[As an aside to frame this memory, I offer my biggest fear prior to heading to Uganda: not the food, not the job or location….it was sleeping. Sleeping is a precious commodity for me as I’m a particularly light sleeper. I don’t sleep in cars or on planes, and I can’t sleep with music or snoring! As a result, the very real possibility of sharing a room with 10-16 other people made my shoulders ache with tension.  This could definitely be a dealbreaker.]

Once we were at the lodge, one of our fearless leaders declared that we were responsible for our sleeping arrangements,  and they wouldn’t be assigned. Then came the magic words:”if you like quiet, you may enjoy the banda farthest from the action at the lodge.’ Say no more! I grabbed my belongings and hiked over to my home for the next month. And along came a trail of others:. My Uganda Banda Sistahs.

It’s funny how the choice of banda became a very first step in connecting us. Of course, the more conversations and common experiences we shared, the deeper our connections beyond sharing a banda.

I gained so much respect for these gals and came to rely on them for support, camaraderie, humour and fun. Here you are in a foreign and sometimes demanding environment where you share not only your story, but deodorant, towels, hiking boots, loo roll and well…outdoor washroom breaks. Three of us shared the same bedtime, love of reading and appreciation for the outdoors:  Britt the birder, wildlife aficionado and bearer of a recent elephant tattoo, and Janet, the strongest and fittest of any of us by far.  I adopted a 4th daughter, Katherine, who just finished a year of teaching in Zambia and will fit right in with my family if her mom lets her.  She was a tough one to leave. No-nonsense Stephanie who teaches in Northern Ireland and also brought her experience of teaching in Ghana for LRTT last year.  Emily the brave who at 24 years of age clearly has more chutzpah and future wild experiences than I! I’m desperate to visit my conference partner, tea-sipping Anna, the fearless but bruised mountain-biker, who returns to Katmandu for her fourth year of teaching, and riding. Or Sue, who actually had to move out of the banda partway through the month as she broke her arm chimp tracking (what a story!) and needed stable flat ground.

I will always cherish the friendships we made under unique circumstances.  You become a little family who truly cares for each other, and it makes the trip’s demands that much easier to face.  Together. Lucky for me, none of them snored! And if we can manage it, Java or Jordan may be on the horizon!

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The Pearl of Africa

“For magnificence, for variety of form and colour, for profusion of brilliant life – bird, insect, reptile, beast – for vast scale – Uganda is truly the Pearl of Africa.” – Winston Churchill

Experiencing the thrill of travel through many corners of Uganda, each upcoming view convinced me of the apt description for this African jewel.  From the Bwindi mountain range to the grasslands near the Victoria basin, lush green walls of forest morph into dry savannas dotted with iconic Acacia trees.  A fifth of Uganda is swampland or freshwater lakes.  And the sky!  How do you capture an African sky?  How many sunrise/sunset photos are too many?

You can’t spend a month in Uganda and not remark on its arresting visual pleasures. At the risk of sharing a photo essay of my camera roll, it’s impossible to reflect on the journey without pulling the curtain on Uganda’s landscape.  Its beauty assaults your senses.  I hadn’t anticipated the mountainous landscape of southwestern Uganda despite signing up for gorilla trekking in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.  Maybe I thought it would be an isolated park-like area.  Instead, the Kanungu district offered a network of switchback roads summiting and dropping across panoramas of ficus natalensis, flame trees, banana plantations, tea terraces,

… and goat herds.  I’ve come to believe there are more goats than folks in Uganda, and they’re friendly, as evidenced by them rapping at our door below.

The remote and rural setting of our Lodge for the month, without a doubt, contributed to the inner joy and peace I felt while away.  Waking to the view of the mountains, the 45 minute drive to school (sans the American country music 😉 and the travel time to our next excursion made road trips, while bumpy, awe-inspiring.

Nature has a way of bringing balance to our souls.  We spent so much time outdoors that rooms feel claustrophobic.  Our elevation meant nights were cool and ideal for sleeping, yet this was Africa.

Early in July, the skies teemed in spurts, denying our wash-by-hand clothes or beds drying time.  I quickly realized I could have brought a few warmer clothes.  While we slept under mosquito nets everywhere, I rarely felt the need to use my liter of repellant and only traced one bite, though we had the added confidence of malarial meds.

LRTT (Limited Resource Teacher Training) has landed on a win/win combination of work/fun pursuits.  During most weekdays, we would attend our school to engage in observations and conversations to support teacher practice; spending time with kids and teachers was the most fulfilling aspect that I may never manage in words.  On weekends, we facilitated professional learning and then, off we flew to experience yet another gift that Ugandan nature had to offer.

Gorilla Trekking

Yes, we were that close (this may be a photo shared from our Whatsapp group as judging from my other gorilla pics, I was distracted by the proximity and have awesome closeups of leaves).  The guides would machete a path through dense tropical forest across steep slippery terrain until you gasped for a breath as he held out his hand to grab your attention and stop you in your tracks.  We heard them before we saw them.  Branches swishing, swaying and cracking.  The grunt of a silverback is unmistakable.  After a flurry of camera clicks, we just stood in amazement.  A baby and mama.  That was my third day in Uganda and it doesn’t even come close to soaking up the location much less the prize of witnessing these gorillas in their own habitat.

Safari

An unusual phenomenon near the Ishasha gate to Queen Elizabeth National Park:  the tree climbing lions.  While there were African Kob and Topi along the way, our first big game sighting was 2 females and a young male lion in a tree.  Gobsmacked! We just wanted to sit and stare for hours.

A cast of other safari animals beckoned us.  The pop up roof on our vans protected us from the sun while allowing 360 degree views of the savanna grasslands.

When I was a young warthog…

Baboons and Monkeys

Hippos and Water Buffalo

TONS of birds…

And my favourite:  the regal African elephant.  You know you’re in the presence of majesty when beholding a community of elephants pass right by you.

We saw zebras at the side of the road, hippos ON the road, elephants crossing the road, and we were speechless.

Lake Bunyoni 

Amazing that more tourists are not privy to the gorgeous views at Lake Bunyoni.  Anywhere I have my first hot shower will have lasting impact, but the calm waters of this excursion were more reminiscent of cottage country than Africa…other than the Crested Cranes, the symbol on the Ugandan flag.

Perhaps these images explain why I couldn’t read while I was in Uganda; #fomo, or fear of missing out, not on an event, but on observing and taking in the vastness, the possibilities of what’s next, the drop dead gorgeous views I wanted to lock in my memory.  My arms bear bruises, my hair caked with red dust, all from hanging out the window to be a part of it all, with friends like Katherine!

 

The Delights and Demands of Leading Professional Learning in a Different Context

In my second blog reflecting on my recent trip to Kanungu, Uganda, I want to tackle my take on teaching teachers.

I’ve had the absolute privilege of facilitating and participating in a wide range of professional learning in my career as an educator. I’ve seen different applications of teacher support in my role as a coach, coordinator and now VP, and I’ve been involved in PD in many locations including conferences in the Dominican Republic with Teacher Mentors Abroad last summer. I’m prepared to argue that regardless of where, the power of empathy to inform your understanding of context, and then to collaboratively agree on areas of growth, proves to be a key driver to change. Not perfect, but powerful.

Likewise, when navigating the complexities of a Ugandan teacher’s day, you had to consider the vulnerable position they held as they welcomed these visitors. So much of our identity is wrapped up in being a teacher! Who am I to enter into your space to make observations around your practice when we’ve just met and I’ve never witnessed a school like this? A fellow colleague and I were asked to support the team’s feelings and confidence around our role as observers. We spent time empathizing, recalling our own feelings when being observed, and formulating some ideas to frame conversations.

Any fears I may have held quickly dissipated the first week as my school’s teachers warmly welcomed and celebrated our presence.

When we arrived each day (after a 45-60 minute rocky van ride), teachers would exit their classrooms to greet us with ‘Agandi. You are welcome madam. And how was your evening?’ What started with new handshakes (Ugandans barely touch your hand and cross over their opposite arm as they reach out) morphed to hugs by the end. That joy of greeting may have been unique to our school given its small staff and sense of family, but it’s easy to see the impact of that ‘drop everything and welcome’ value. I loved the intentionality, the formality. Add that to my purposeful entry toolkit.

Here is a photo of my school family to start. Because professional learning is about people first, then programming. You’ll see: teacher Christopher back right who is 70 but was the biggest ambassador of student talk; teacher Monic back left whose baby, Witness, was just 4 weeks when we started. She teaches and nurses her across the day. My fellow friends (and washroom guards) Katherine and Jason. In red is Penlope, whose love and care go far beyond any director’s job description. Florence and Festus, John and Godon, Aggre and Aphia. We ate together, laughed together, learned together.

So how does one Canadian end up on a global team of educators in Uganda? A friend of mine, Susan Grieve, asked me to research an organization as her daughter was considering the possibility. I caught the bug immediately. I marvelled at the history, widespread impact, and values revealed in the Limited Resource Teacher Training website. That planted the seed of a crazy idea that became a spectacular month in Uganda!

Briefly, LRTT’S design supports teacher training around 6 concepts: Mindset, Climate for Learning, Preparation for Teaching, Teaching for Learning, Assessment for Learning and Professional Culture. We focused on the first three.

These concepts are realized through practical modelled strategies as outlined in the course program though we were not relegated to only using the strategies provided. To me, the power behind the LRTT design, however, is the observations in classrooms over 3 weeks punctuated by targeted professional learning each weekend. This, I believe, we could learn from in our context. Short intensive narrow foci to leverage the momentum of daily interactions in class. What may have been modelled one Saturday was fodder for experimentation on Monday.

Our large LRTT Ugandan team benefitted from 2 team leads (former fellows), 1 in -country lead who also works across 3 countries, and 2 Ugandan coordinators.

These leaders were a tremendous support long before we even stepped foot off the plane. Indeed, LRTT requires pre-fellowship learning modules and webinars to expand and equip fellows with the toolkit they need to manage the responsibility of professional learning. These leaders made you feel a little less alone and brought their depth of experience to our conversations. Not to mention, they were my saviours around access to intermittent data, coordination of excursions, monitoring of curfew (~sigh) and, well, wine 🤷‍♀️.

No doubt their positive energy was the glue that held us together across the month.

Our fellows team was divided and deployed to a number of schools across the Kanungu District (southwest Uganda next door to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest). Our school had 3 fellows who were assigned to a team of 3 or 4 teachers. On my team were the director and owner of the school, the head teacher, a retired head teacher who had returned to teach and a relatively new teacher.

However on conference days, these teams were cross-pollinated across a number of schools. As a fellow then, you play a role on 3 teams: school team, conference team, and whole team. Read TEAM. Now given the complexity of human interactions, these opportunities to nurture and participate in teams can be on a spectrum of powerful to pitiful. I liken the experience to dams; at times, holding back the flow of ideas to allow for a natural current to meander in eddies and rapids, then at other times, opening the floodgates to invite waves of what ifs. All across a brand new landscape. For some, the generating of ideas that would meet teacher/ student needs is invigorating, whereas for others, it’s foreign and too far removed from their preliminary experiences in teaching. Some fellows had few years of teaching experience. Others had international experience.

I struggle to outline all the additional contributing factors that enhanced our effectiveness, but surely these teachers’ ( and students’) eagerness to learn, to grow, to please was an astounding piece of that. We faced a language barrier, not that students could not speak English as it is the language of instruction. Instead it was their way of rote learning which built vast vocabulary banks but not necessarily optimal ability for critical thinking.

One way we sought to address and bridge this gap was to encourage teachers and students to use their first language.

This won’t come as a surprise to my ELL colleagues who know the power of tapping into one’s first language. And when our Ugandan teachers or students heard us struggle to use even the simplest Rukiga phrase, appreciation laced with laughter bonded us. Again, empathy.

Both the implentation of the Q Chart in raising awareness and developing higher order thinking questions, or in designing prompts for community circle, the freedom to think and speak in their first language helped us all imagine the process with more success. Of course, our instruction was in English but our extension was for them to consider its impact on student learning in Rukiga.

We took questions from their curriculum to sort, we bumped them up to inspire deeper thinking. We employed think/pair/ share often to instigate student talk. My 70 year old teacher was possibly the greatest adopter who witnessed the power of student interactions. By our last week, he had combined genders in small groups working on a math problem collaboratively as he circulated, and then invited them to share their thinking at the board. Unheard of!

{Please note that LRTT challenges our privilege and power around taking photos, as consent is a thorny issue in this context. My intention is always to try and position myself to be aware of the impact, and to share discreetly. }

The Ugandan education system relies heavily on testing at every level every year in August for a week. I believe it determines student placement the following year and is data that attempts to compare schools across the district. These test booklets were quite advanced and in English. Teachers at our school rotated so there were no home room teachers. All teachers had many classrooms. And many accessed the ‘outdoor’ classroom as well.

If a teacher was absent, a classroom sat. Direct supervision was not standard.

Their school day went from 7:30am to 5pm. Little ones recieved posho, a porridge drink, at break if their parents could afford it. Some students walked home at lunch, others hung around in their classrooms.

Definitely most heartbreaking for me was the lack of absolutely any book. Sure, teachers had their curriculum and a student sample book that dictated their instruction, page by page, but students did not read except for the words or sentence they had just written.

I tried to investigate whether oral storytelling was happening, but I never witnessed it. I wonder if that is a home experience. It’s one of my great regrets not encouraging teachers to have students create their own books. For example, one class was working on domestic vs wild animals. What an easy illustration and caption per page for a whole class to contribute to. Paper is valuable. Drawing is not learning unless it is a map. Pencils are sharpened with a razor blade. Every student carries one wrapped in wax paper.

I was paralyzed by fear everytime a child started pulling the blade across a pencil stub.

Limited resources but maximum generosity best describes my school. Still wishing Katherine, Jason and I were pulling up in the van to start the day.

Immersing and Investing Myself in Uganda

I have just returned home after spending July in Uganda where I was a fellow with the organization LRTT:  Limited Resource Teacher Training.

Given the intensity of the experience, I anticipate a series of blogs to help me grapple with the whirlwind month but also share some insights into teaching/being in a foreign context, even short-term. I’ll explore the model used by LRTT to facilitate professional learning, the successes and challenges of building team, the beauty of Ugandans and the land.

But first, it’s personal.

Without reservation, I faced the most challenging yet rewarding experiences I have ever had.  ‘Pinch me’ moments abounded.  How does one capture the sensory overload and sear it into my memory and onto my heart? The journey straddles elation and exhaustion.  Being immersed in a foreign context requires being all in as you make mental, physical, spiritual and emotional investments.

The Mental Investment

When you are responsible for delivering and supporting professional learning for a team of teachers, you exert enormous mental energy trying to learn as much as possible in a short period of time so you can be responsive to the needs.  Our observations in classrooms inform our design to target teacher learning.  Now, imagine doing this in Uganda, in a school that has never had PD, where classes could reach over 45 students, where a blackboard is the only technology.

Here we are, a team of white strangers, mzungus, each of us sitting in a class to help you enhance your practice.  The responsibility was frankly overwhelming.  The common driver?  Our desire to improve student learning. Whether you’re in Canada, Dominican Republic, or Uganda, that mission unites teachers everywhere.

So you focus on the positives immediately, you smile A LOT, you engage in conversations, you open yourself up to possibility and you enjoy being in the moment.  Early on, we engaged in training in the local language, Rukiga.  While classroom instruction is in English, students and teachers are far more comfortable in their first language (more on that in another blog). Parachuting into classrooms in a foreign context requires a commitment to do as little harm as possible.  One of my colleagues, Anna, addressed these concerns with our whole team when she challenged us to determine where we landed on a spectrum between pity and empathy as we worked in our schools.

You had to intentionally seek to empower teachers where they were, and not wish for an impossible alternative.

The Physical Investment

As soon as we landed in Uganda, every moment was on the go, full speed ahead.  The pace alone stretched my fairly active lifestyle. You sleep in dormitory style bandahs and hostels.  Living with 28 other people every minute of the day and night is about as demanding as it gets for me.  There was no space, physically or mentally, for independent time.  When you went for a walk in this mountainous remote area, you walked together, more to avoid getting lost than any security concerns. You eat a LOT of beans, matoke, cassava, rice, boiled eggs, cabbage…and avocado.

You travel with ‘loo roll’ and use squatty potties in most places…so many washroom stories, I could write a book!

I managed 2 hot showers across the month when we weren’t at the lodge where we lived.  Access to water is limited, carried often in jersey cans, filling water bottles from filtered dispensers.  In one day, you might be at a conference delivering PD from 8:30 to 1, jump in the vans to drive hours to safari, view tree-climbing lions by 4, hippos by 7, thunderstorms by 10, and flop under the mosquito net by 11 only to get up early for a sunrise game drive at 5am.

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And driving!  Uganda’s infrastructure of roadways are really former cattle or goat paths.  I remember only 2 roads that were paved of all the countryside we traversed. My tailbone still hurts.

The Spiritual Investment

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Ugandans live their faith practically and seriously.  At school, we ate together as a staff everyday, in a small dark cramped space where the mzungus were always served first and with the most.  Early on, I had asked if they pray before a meal, and of course, was then asked to bless the meal.  That tiny step made a big connection between me and my teachers.  Every meal was a sacred gathering. In classrooms, brain breaks are often religious songs that are shared robustly, joyous voices lifted up across the school vying for our attention.  We attended an English church service where we were warmly received.  The music team led us through some of my childhood church classics.  Worshipping in this context is both foreign and familiar.  Even one of our LRTT drivers was a keyboard player on the team…a serendipitous connection for me as I too play keyboards at church.

The Emotional Investment

Far and away, the most taxing investment was emotionally.  To build relationships with 28 other global educators as a backdrop to the relationships you’re building with your team of Ugandan teachers was demanding.  You take intentional steps toward, or sometimes away from, others with whom you are spending so much time in highly unusual circumstances. Doing this hard work of relationship and team building in a foreign context amplifies both the process and the results…some ran deep and intense.  I find myself tearing up as I long for some of the friendships we established.

As some of you will know, I have used a community circle to bring folks together as they share the story of their name.  It might  have been a risk to try this in Uganda, but again, the intimacy that sharing a personal identity story brings to a group is unmatched.  These are moments I wish I could have recorded, but remain locked in my heart.

The tears shared at our school’s farewell speak to the emotional immersion of the month.  When a shoeless, threadbare uniformed child offers you the gift of a mango or avocado, the only lunch they brought, it can break you.  When a quiet, artistic boy you’ve tried to connect with in class gives you a miniature mat he has made from grasses on the last day, it can take everything out of you to rein in your tears.

And when the director of the school, my good friend Penlope, shares that she not only has her own children, but adopted 3 others from her own school because their mothers had abandoned them, well, you are in the company of  an angel.

As I reflect on just a few of the interactions and experiences I had in Uganda, the return on my investments has been immeasurable.  Despite, or perhaps because of the hardships, I would sign up again in a heartbeat.  There is something very compelling to anticipating the unexpected at every corner, to living every moment. Unforgettable.

 

 

 

 

Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

They say that a change is as good as a rest. That maybe your soul is seeking a spark that sleep just can’t offer. For any educator regardless of position, June holds the promise of rest, relax, breathe, repeat. Like you, I have a list of responsibilities to close the loop on learning for this year. However, while I attend to reflecting and wrapping up the learning for this school year, I find myself gearing up and preparing for my next steps. Perhaps ‘dive’ is a better word.

I face two brand new experiences in the coming season. In July, I join a team of global educators through Limited Resource Teacher Training travelling to Uganda for a month of professional learning with rural Ugandan teachers and students. And in September, I’ll join a team at Bonaventure Meadows as VP with Thames Valley District School Board.

Breathe.

The anticipation of both moves saturates me at once with dread and excitement. I’ve been pondering a graphic for the past few days since @sbruyns shared it via twitter. I find myself waffling across these categories. At 3am, I’m clamouring for comfort zone, paralysed by questions that typically start with ‘what if?’  At 11am, I’m all ‘bring it on’ and ‘I got this.’ I am reminded that if we claim to be lifelong learners, yet never put ourselves in the vulnerable position of truly learning, how can we possibly empathize with our students who navigate these uncharted waters daily? Don’t get me wrong. I want to be competent. But I also want to learn how others think, view and interact to make sense of the world. We can learn at any age, from any age.  Recently I came across a tweet that challenged me:  if you don’t have a millenial mentor, find one!  I intend to.  When I head to Uganda on July 2, I’ll no doubt be the oldest, but I know I’ll be learning alongside brand new teachers I’m serving as well. When you’re in a foreign country, there’s no chance of relying on how you’ve always done it. Instead, you are pushed just beyond your current skill set to innovate, to problem solve, to find another way.

When I join the Bonomagic team, I will be learning from every single person walking those halls…the students, staff, admin, parents and community. Each of them hold a valuable piece of background knowledge that I will need to be responsive to their needs. Whenever you intentionally parachute in to a new community, whether in Kanungu, Uganda or East London, you have an opportunity to expand your view, customize your toolkit, exercise your empathy and grow as you get out of your comfort zone.

So, what’s pushing you out of your comfort zone?

Take a risk. Make a move.

I Remember

Remembrance Day.

As if the date itself remembers its significance as a chill to the bone, grey bands of clouds like smoke roll to the horizon. A hopeful sun brings little warmth to a heavy heart. Wind whips through bush and branch, sweeping up fallen leaves, carrying the message, ‘remember.’

I close my eyes. I remember.

Standing, forever, outside. Shivering.

A parade of footsteps echoing off Exeter town hall until a sergeant barks orders halting

the march.

Waiting.

Silence, but for the wind lifting lapels and hems of coats, pressing skirts against stockinged legs, jingling medals on breast pockets.

Crackling electricity activates the loudspeaker mounted on

a blue Chevrolet.

Prayers, poems and scriptures … mark our place … lest we forget.

The disobedient microphone cuts in and out like snapshots of intermittent memories that flash across veterans’ faces with heads held high.

Waiting.

Standing in silence.

My mom,mom remembrance day 1971

standing tall in her belted trench coat, white gloves and navy legion beret, her rosacea cheeks the only colour on her face.

One of few women in this sea of former soldiers.

She wears no medals.  Only scars, memories, crosses she bears, choices she made.

Moeilijk. Dit leven.

Initial nervous sputtering notes escape a trumpet as the Last Post rings out.

My dad,

confidence building as he plays through his anxiety, his own memories, his own lost brother.

Music his medicine.

A minute of silence.

Waiting

For the bagpipe drone to wield its mournful tune until

The reveille brings relief, gives permission for all to exhale, relax their shoulders.

A knowing glance shared momentarily between veterans before returning to their lives

since the war.

Nowadays, when my brother, sisters and I observe Remembrance Day, we stand tall, clenching teeth and fists, fingernails in palms, catch in throat. Waiting. To breathe.

I wish to keep a record

I wish to keep a record of my thinking and learning. That’s why I have a writer’s notebook. I (inconsistently) keep a blog to share some of that learning as I am convinced it helps up my game when teaching writing.

My title today comes from a book shared this week on twitter by @ShelfieTalk, two avid readers and educators from NB.

I paused to think of the insights these 19th century women must have shared regarding their world, and was delighted that a) they were compelled to write, and b) their stories were valued and thus, collected and published. It’s important work. Noticing and noting your surroundings requires close attention as you seek to make sense and meaning of your experience.

Since returning from the Dominican Republic last weekend, I know our entire Canadian educator team has reflected on our experience, its successes (team collaboration) and challenges (ant invasion 🐜). Questions linger as well:

  • What did we learn about the Dominican context, its culture? And how did we adapt our plans accordingly?
  • How could we do better in supporting the teachers, in enhancing their practice?
  • Did we connect our teaching to their curriculum in a practical way?
  • How do we build partnerships with the teachers there across the year? How can we empower more of them to co-teach with us?
  • What impact might this experience have on my teaching in a culturally competent way?

My good friend and mentor Sue Bruyns, a trip leader who has participated in Teacher Mentors Abroad many times, requested our reflections in writing in order to hear our voices, but more importantly to feed forward to future trips. Teachers are notoriously reflective practitioners. I’ve barely made it down the hall at school before I’m scrutinizing my moves and what I could have changed to improve that lesson, that conversation.

This week I devoted a good deal of time to carefully consider and record my impressions, and share some of them via this blog: Key to Community: Learn Their Names, Sounds and Sidewalks Signal a Sense of Place, and Sharing Culture, Sharing Food. The process of making myself stop, think through, and then write to wrestle some clarity out of those ideas has proven valuable to me. It would have been so much easier to just swipe through my photos to relive memorable moments. But I committed to exploring community this summer and writing about it.

Writing about your experience extends a memory’s shelf life not only for your own enjoyment but for parsing out the significant learning that comes to the surface when you write. In some small way I believe that writing helps me to bear witness to my interactions with people’s lives. Sewing together those threads of observations, feelings and questions, I come to a better understanding of what happened. Different perspectives may not come to light when you’re walking the journey but instead appear vividly when you’re looking back on a journey. You learn all over again. When you’re in the moment, you can’t connect the dots.

Cultural sensitivity and competency in teaching, and frankly living, is drawing a lot of attention recently with good reason. Having the extraordinary opportunity to teach, however briefly, in another country deepens my resolve to nurture students’ global awareness and empathy. While I might not yet be able to comprehend the dots I’ve connected to my future, I know this experience, and reflecting on it, will infuse my conversations and curriculum.

I wish to keep a record.