It's all about the narrative

It’s all about the narrative…

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From Away, my Frosh story

A while ago, Tyson published Froshme on 4C , ending his post with an invitation to others to share their frosh empathy stories. I hesitated at first because I felt that my first year experience was so distant from that of the ifp students. Yet as I wrote it out, I noticed some similarities, and found some empathy.

Of course, one of the defining characteristics of ifp students is that they are not from here, that they are experiencing the quaint rituals of frosh week as strangers to this culture. On the face of it, this would seem quite different from my situation, as I had grown up in Toronto and was very familiar with the university. However, the difference is not as great as it would seem, as I took two deliberate steps that alienated me from mainstream U of T experience: I spent my last year of high school at ASE alternative school, and I then took a one-year break, most of which I spent in the UK.

England had been transformative for me: I had felt my first stirrings of socialism walking past the hedge-fortified mansions of Chislehurst,

and I had become viscerally aware of my own vulnerability, physical, emotional, economic, on the streets of skinhead-era Notting Hill.

Back in Canada, the social world of University of Toronto seemed childish to me. The froshweek students, for all their depravity, seemed impossibly naive and sheltered, buffered by their unacknowledged privilege. (Of course, it had not occurred to me that I also enjoyed privilege, simply in the fact that I had been able to leave London, never mind that my parents had scooped me up and taken me off to Greece on the way home to Canada [and yes, I whined about that, too].)

At the same time, I also felt disengaged academically. At ASE, we set our own curriculum, so I did what any pretentious 17 year-old would do, and read everything (including the Bible). Thus, clearly, I knew everything.

I was outraged to find that my compulsory survey English Lit course required us to purchase a reader (Norton Anthology, the one with all the men on the front, but that’s a different rant).

Well, I it is a little dog-eared: I guess I did read at least some of it.

I resented the vocabulary lists and fill-in-the-blanks exercises that formed the bulk of my second year French language course. I felt that I had progressed beyond the need to learn the nuts and bolts of the language — although I was a little surprised to see my more compliant classmates receiving higher marks for their compositions. Now I understand that there is no automatic equivalency between feeling comfortable with a language and actually speaking it well, and I squirm a little at this memory.

So, even though our worlds are quite different, I can relate to the sense of cultural disconnection that many of our students seem to feel. The complex calculus of beer and hazing rituals holds no meaning for them, and they may see no value in enhancing their familiarity with these things.

Similarly, I sometimes sense a similar academic frustration in my students . They have worked so hard to master a certain set of skills,

and suddenly the goal posts have moved:  some skills need to be un- or re learned. The scaffolded exercises that we offer may well feel like a step backwards, a threat to their fledgeling sense of academic sovereignty.

Faced with this situation, I did what I see many ifp students do — I retreated to more familiar territory. In my case, I re-connected with friends from high school (many of whom were still in high school b/c alternative school). Their lives seemed a little more real: they lived in apartments above stores and worked survival jobs to support their pets and their music habits. They read what they wanted and discussed the books freely and with passion. Granted, these improvised reading lists were a little heavy on Genet and Ferlinghetti, but the quest for knowledge felt more authentic than the one I was offered at university.


When I see my ifp students re-embrace the familiar, setting their clock 12 hours ahead, spending their nights talking to friends back home, closing their social ranks within the program, I may have been a little quick to judge. I need to remind myself that I, too, needed to “go back to highschool,” at least for a little while.

When the brain says nope

So I’m studying Arabic, just not very well.  After many hours and countless hundreds of dollars (well clearly, I could count them, but I’m a little in denial here), I’ve got to a level where I can say “Hi, how are you?” — but won’t know what you’re saying when you answer me.  Luckily, my Arabic-speaking friends have progressed much faster with their English than I have with my Arabic, to the point where we can have long and specific conversations in English about how difficult Arabic is.

My first round of lessons was subsidized by my employer (again, best workplace ever!) on the grounds that learning a new language would foster empathy in me as a language teacher.  My initial response was “Been there: done that already;  empathied up, thanks!  Going to cash that cheque anyway though.”

I thought that I was through with empathy. It is true that I have had the experience of being immersed in a different language, suffered the disorientation, the anomie, the social disintegration — so I thought, “Ok, got it — being a linguistic outsider sucks.”  However, I was a little surprised to discover that I’ve reached a new empathy level — it just took almost a year for me to get to it.

So let me talk to you about case endings.  Actually no, I’m not going to really talk about them because either you speak Arabic and I’m going go to sound like a noob or you don’t and you’re not going to know what I’m talking about.  Let’s just say that in Arabic, nouns and adjectives have case endings:  nominative, genitive and accusative, which are indicated by diacritics that may or may not be accompanied by pronunciation changes.

I don’t really have a problem with learning them.  After all, they are fairly simple and I learned Latin as a young person.  I don’t retain much of the language, but the study did open my mind to the realization that for any possible relationship between words, there can be a formal grammar structure to express it (Somehow in my mind there’s a connection between this and Internet porn, but I’m not going to go there.). So absorbing the information that nouns and adjectives can change their sounds in fairly predictable ways — that’s not a stretch.

The thing is, I can’t do them.  When I’m faced with a sentence to write, or even to read, I just can’t.  I’m already managing the alphabet with its fluid characters and random dots, and maybe I do need a pair of glasses.  And then there’s the pronunciation, which is actually not too bad when you eliminate all the sounds I actually cannot say.  And remembering what the words mean.  And the verb conjugations I’ve pretty well nailed down, although they are a little counterintuitive as most of the action happens at the beginning of the word, and there’s also the problem of my feminist brain piping up about the fact that there is no third person feminine form because women literally don’t have agency and I have to say “Shut up for a while!  I’ll take you to a pinkhat march later, ok?”

So when I get to the case endings, I just stop.  I know they exist, but my brain says, “Nope.  I’m done.”

It’s not that I’m not motivated. i really want to do them. I want to be the kind of student that can navigate smoothly through all this. There’s a woman in my class who loves case endings.  She asks frequent questions to confirm their rationale, and suggests hypothetical situations where the endings would be different. To me, she is a kind of language acquisition superhero.  I would really like to be her — I just can’t: my nope-y brain won’t let me.

This makes me think of my ifp students.  A recurring problem with their compositions is incorrect verb tense inflections.  We know that they have studied the tenses, but they frequently miss the tense markers when writing.  Now I understand what might be going on with them: maybe they are already occupied with all the other linguistic and semantic activity — maybe their brains are just saying “Nope.”*

Knowing this doesn’t solve the problem.  We can’t just have a big group hug and forget about the grammar. They will have to learn to throw a few s s and d s onto the ends of words so as not to totally annoy their Biology profs next year.  Similarly, I’m eventually going to have to get beyond this case-ending hurdle somehow.

Still, perhaps this has taught me a little about blaming and about timing. Experiencing the problem myself has given me a sense of the shape of the problem.  I can feel its weight — the overwhelming sense of powerlessness.  But I can also trace the origin of the problem, and perhaps I can follow that thread through to a solution.

So I’m not going to see this  “carelessness” as a moral failure, on my part or my students’. I know that once the sense of paralysis sets in, there’s no negotiating with it.  With all the good will in the world, I am unable to perform that particular task at that particular moment.  It must be the same for them, when they try to add that final layer of proficiency to their writing.

But what about the other piece of the insight? Maybe now that I understand where this problem comes from, I can shift the narrative a little. What if I remove some of the extraneous sources of  stress? I’m going to sit down with my old homework assignments and go over just the case endings.  I won’t have to think about the other language elements so much, so that should free up some space.  Perhaps I can figure out a way to transfer this to my teaching practice.  How can I show the students a way to free up a similar space in their brains?

So, that moment of empathy is helping me to reshape the narrative of how I learn, and how I teach; this gives me pause because I have an interesting relationship with empathy.

I’ve written about it before here and also here and a little bit here.   I recently read Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy and I agree with a lot of what he has to say.  I think we have to be  wary about throwing the word around.

Still, I don’t think we should be dismissing empathy entirely. In this situation, empathy did supply something that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. This feeling of the brain being full — we knew about it intellectually, saw evidence of it, but when I experienced it myself, I learned something. Something about my own powerlessness, but also about the seeds of a solution.

Empathy then, like a little flash of creativity, takes us somewhere our conscious mind on its own will not.  We should value that.  But we cannot expect rely exclusively on empathy.We have to remember that the flash of inspiration takes hours and maybe years of hard work before it becomes a poem or a symphony or a computer game.  In the same way, that epiphany was valuable, but it’s going to take work and inquiry and teachercraft to apply that information to my teaching practice.  By the end of the process, it may look completely different from what it started out as. And by then, I’ll probably be able to manage my Arabic nouns a little better.

*I just happened on this post by Joy Gakonga.  She also writes about experiencing a sense of paralysis when a situation becomes overwhelming — in a slightly different context. She has  some great insights into how empathy fits into a teacher’s toolset, too.

Teacherpants goes live!

… and I’ll actually be talking about teachering this time

How to be

(so this is a teaching blog, right?  Well actually yes.  I am in the middle of writing a piece on the esl/eap schism.  It was getting a little hard-edged, though, so I decided to spend some time in the relatively tranquil waters of world politics)

I’m not a very politically active person, but I did go to Oka during the crisis — twice.


The first time was like a slightly gritty summer camp.  After all, it is beautiful there; we fell asleep in a pile around a campfire, and there was probably drumming.

When we went back a week later, the visitors had left.  It was still beautiful, but there were lines of soldiers on the tops of the hills.

We were not quite sure what to do:  we weren’t really making ourselves useful, but we had a feeling of obligation, that we could not turn away from what was happening.  The air buzzed with foreboding…

And then, a  confrontation broke out between the soldiers and a couple in a car.  The two were arrested, and the soldiers moved to take the car away.

But we knew there was a child in the car.  We rushed forward to intercede with the soldiers and they pushed us back.

And then we just, well, fell apart.  In our defence, we were youngish and sleep-deprived, and we’d never had that many guns trained on us before.

While we were sobbing and shivering, a woman appeared out of one of the dells.  Her calm presence made me think she was a clan mother, but she was a visitor too, a Quaker lady* from Nova Scotia.  She had emerged not out of the woods, but out of the Oka cheese outlet, which was, amazingly, still open.

She spoke calmly with the soldiers , and they agreed to release the child into her care.

Later on there was a hearing — we are white and middle class, and one of us was hit by a solider.  This meant I had the chance to meet the Quaker lady again.  She told me about how she had spent her day with the little girl.  Little mundane details like how they had a picnic. I remember being a touch impatient: I wanted drama; I wanted her to shake her fist at the sky and curse the military imperialist complex, but she just wanted to talk about Oka cheese.

It was only much later that I realized that she didn’t need the grandiose statements because she had moulded her whole life into an act of resistance. Her faith and political beliefs were embodied in everything she did.  Even her choice of residence was an act of resistance: she had moved to Canada in protest against the military actions of the US government.

I’ve been thinking about the Quaker lady lately, in these unmoored times when I’m wondering how to be.  How to navigate this world where frightening things are happening on our borders. How to be of use; how to make my life a useful one. I think it’s time to cultivate some of her patience and humility, to practise waiting and listening.  Sometimes the act that we need to perform is not a grand gesture, but something as simple as taking responsibility for a frightened child, or providing transportation somewhere — or not providing transportation — or passing on a message, or moving a file to another folder, or sitting on the floor in some airport.  The thing about these Boschian times is that we just don’t know.  Part of that is that we don’t know how we will be able to make ourselves useful. Just that it probably won’t be at the head of a march.

photo cred Rachel Warden

This is not a post against the marching.  I went to the Toronto march last weekend, and it was wonderful in ways I can’t yet put into words.  What I want to say is that the marching was almost certainly the easy part…


* her words

Pink Sweater over a Black Dress (Smiling Through my Tears)

Yes I know that this is not the only conversation we should be having about the election.  Maybe it’s not even the most important one.  But it’s the only one I feel qualified to contribute to.

Photo credit, Winny Li; sweater credit, Susan Heximer
So on Tuesday night, amidst that whole barrage of unmoored language came this tweet by Patton Oswalt.
 At the time, I read it and dismissed it, preoccupied by all the other demons swirling around that hectic night. And yes, perhaps there was also a little bit of denial there.
When I woke up in the morning, though, my body hurt as if I had been drinking and I knew that on some visceral level, I had accepted it : that Hillary’s loss had at least in part been due to misogyny. I was crying — the kind of crying where tears just appear on your cheeks out of nowhere — and I couldn’t stop.
It felt different from the other fears and regrets and betrayals that I was dealing with  — it felt personal — It’s not that I ever wanted to be president of the United States, but the message: people like you shouldn’t even think of doing this — it shook me to the core. It’s an unbidden reaction to injustice and discrimination, and it is running through my body like a disease.
And then the concession speech.  I was so worried — when she didn’t speak that night, when she was behind schedule the next morning.
 I mean what do you when you lose a presidential election after 50 years of campaigning for the job?  Was she lying on some hotel floor somewhere pounding her fists into the baseboard?
Sure that would have been me — and most of us –and she’d certainly earned the right.  But for her sake, I wanted that dignity at the finish, to show her as the stateswoman she’d always been.
And she did it.  She stood there and smiled and made eye contact and was presidential even in defeat; and she held it together, which is what Hills has always done best.
The speech was strong, a subtle balance of grace, anger and gratitude.  And it hit its mark.  I could see the Facebook responses proliferating, sound bites lining up beside the images on the screen, spinning off into their own separate existences.
 I think that of all the excellent speeches of this campaign, this is one whose words will resound, will be repeated, on college walls, in graduation addresses, on  motivational posters, repeated until the words are so well known that they become trite.  And when that happens, when her words have become part of our cultural wallpaper, Hillary Clinton will have become the legend she deserves to be.
It’s already started — on Wednesday, my friend Cate posted this photo of one of the walls of Toronto Western Hospital.
And I think: well okay then. She’s not quitting, so neither should we.
 We knew this would be hard row to hoe, and now we see exactly how hard.  But hasn’t that always been the case?  — backwards and in high heels, as they used to say.  Now we know, and when we come back, we’ll  work even harder.  Some will be daunted or disgusted by the Boschian absurdity of the past 16 months, but for some this will be a gauntlet thrown down.
Those girls in the gallery with the tear-splotched faces — they’ll remember this moment. And they’ll be back, and so will this one, and so will the rest of us, all the way back to the women who were there from the beginning.
 We’ll grab that arc of history and bend it ourselves.  This time, it’s personal… and  political.

Taking a break from Ulysses stories to do some Back to School shopping

Becoming Odysseus

Ulysses 3

I love the poem Ulysses,* the driving rhythm of the poetry, the solitary courage of the speaker — even the arrogance speaks to me at a certain level.  I hear its lines in my head many times throughout my day.  I guess in a way, we all want to be Ulysses.ulysses 2

But it wasn’t always like this.  When we were learning the poem in high school English class, the teacher asked us whom we identified more with, Tennyson’s hero or The Lotos Eaters.(She was the cool teacher.)**  Full disclosure here, I hadn’t actually read the latter poem; I was going totally on my memory of that section of Little Town on the Prairie where Laura finds the Tennyson book hidden away in her mother’s sewing.

tennyson book

Even so, I was firmly in the camp of The Lotus Eaters, even if it was a little tl;dr. Now it was the 70s, so slacker culture was in full swing, but it was more than that — I actively hated Ulysses.

When I was younger, the question had been easy:  “Where are the girl characters in this book?” Now, my cool girl persona didn’t permit me to ask the question out loud, but I had an awkward feeling when I read the third line, the only mention of any woman in the poem.  “Matched with an aged wife I mete and dole” –I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable when I heard these words, but there was no accessible way to articulate or even make sense to myself of what I felt.

It’s like when I studied Anglo Saxon in second year university.  Again I wanted to ask, “Where are the girl characters?” but nobody was asking that question at U of T in the early 80s.* ** I dealt with my anger by avoidance, and getting an extremely poor grade in my Old English course.

In those days, I didn’t consider myself a feminist:  I was a cool girl and I didn’t need women’s rights.  I could keep pace with the boys around me. I would rather get a C in an English course than admit what was bothering me.

All this changed when I had my first child.  Suddenly equality was not a given: it became something I had to fight for.  And I realized that feminism was simply that.

So there’s a whole chunk of the story that deserves its own blogpost, or even its own blog, but here I am, 47/50 on the Buzzfeed Feminist Scale. **** It’s been a journey through feminism, and also through reading, and I’m not sure how it happened, but  now I love Ulysses.  It’s become part of the fabric of my life as I age. *****

As for Anglo Saxon, I haven’t quite reconciled  myself to it completely.  But that year when two Beowulf   movies came out, I saw both of them.  I hope that counts.




*Tennyson here as opposed to Joyce. The latter work is the source of its own dysfunctional relationship, but I’ll save that for another post.

**for which I hated her.

*** and yes I know now that  the Angelina Jolie monster does actually play quite a large role in Beowulf.  In university, though, I never made it far enough through the thorns and swords to find out.

**** Well who can honestly say that she has never criticized another woman’s clothes or makeup?

***** (I just had to squeeze this in because it makes me so happy.) For my parents’ 50 th anniversary, my father wrote this poem, which recuperates and reclaims the original Ulysses in a true love song.

Ulysses plain



Exorcism: a sequel


I started this piece at the beginning of the summer but abandoned it because I didn’t want to jinx things.  Now summer is over, and things did become more challenging than they were when I first started this post, but the strength and resilience have remained.

So I finally finished my post about summer school , and now it’s summer again.

Well, you might be asking, how’s it going?  Are you students still triggering bizarre introspective journeys while you are supposed to be managing a debate on greenspace in Toronto?

And the answer is no.  Summer school is summer school — this pastiche of charming moments and, yes, sullen disregard.  The latter is still a challenge to me and I occasionally ask myself if I have exactly the right kind of personality  for teaching teenagers.  However, it doesn’t feel as personal any more.  At the moment, the dominant reaction is irritation rather than paralysis.

On another level too, I feel that something has been exorcised.  That idea:  I would hate to be a student in this class* — it’s not a comforting one.  It had been lingering at the edges of my consciousness throughout my teaching career.  I thought I could suppress it by refusing to confront it, but things don’t work that way.  This wraith generated a vague sense of guilt that undermined my confidence as a teacher.

Well, there was a point this term where I thought to myself, “I actually don’t care if you don’t like this class, because I know that what we are doing right now is exactly what I would have loved at your age.”

The feeling was short-lived, which is a good thing because a) I like anchovies and tapenade and garter snakes and maybe you don’t and b) you know, you really should care if the students don’t like the class.

Still, it was a moment of strength and pride.

So something happened to cauterize this psychic injury. Was it indeed a Jungian moment? Did I face the full embodiment of my greatest fear and in the act of confronting it vanquish it?

Or was it perhaps in the writing that the Jungian journey became real?  As I wrote that post over the intervening months, I found the story shaping itself in my mind.  Perhaps the actual classroom moment was just the seed of the experience.  Perhaps the true catharsis came later. Was it in articulating the emotions, in mapping the journey, that I truly came to understand and manage the conflicts going on inside me?

It’s getting a little chicken-or-the-egg here.  Short answer: things are better; evil teenage-self seems to have receded; summer school is done and part of me can’t wait for next July.

*serendipitously, I happened upon this piece by Hana Ticha while I was writing this post.




There’s a thirst to starting to learn a new language, a glee when one deciphers  a new word independently.  It reminds me of the way my children laughed when they first made that letter-sound-meaning connection.

I’m learning Arabic  — my first new language since my teens.  And yes, the language brain is not what it was, but “tho’ much is taken much abides” as the wise poet said. * What I didn’t expect was to be having so much fun.

But what is most important about this thirst is that it’s contagious.  A group of learners will spread the excitement amongst themselves, and beyond that, to the instructors and school staff.  I missed out on the big waves of refugee immigration — from Vietnam and Somalia — but I do remember when  the last big group of Colombian immigrants crossed the border and how our halls were alive with the buzz of Spanish and the energy of people for whom learning English was a true survival mechanism.  Every week they could see quantifiable progress in their English; what’s more, this progress translated into greater ease that they felt as they settled into their new homes.

In recent years, immigration has been restricted to more proficient speakers.  The tone has changed.  English classes for most have been a choice rather than a necessity.  While this has its advantages — students with more specific ideas of what they want from a class –there is something lacking.  We can spend weeks discussing the use of infinitive versus gerund forms, but even if that information stays with them, knowing  the difference between “I had trouble doing that.”  I got into trouble for doing that” and “I went to a lot of trouble to do that”  will not necessarily make it appreciably easier for them to make small talk on the bus.

But now…

Surely you’ve seen the news photos of Our Handsome Prime Minister hugging parka-clad children. ** Canada has welcomed tens of thousands of refugees over the past 7 months.  Many of them have settled in Toronto, and a great deal of them are at a basic English level.  Again, we have an influx of people for whom English is literally a survival need, and who are clearly aware of its importance. I have met members of this community in different settings and in each case I have been struck by the intensity of their motivation to learn.

This could be our opportunity, a chance to infuse new energy into the ESL system, on the level of funding (1 student = x government $), but also on the level of morale.  A flood of new  students, especially at the beginner level, could bring that contagious thirst that would give all involved a new sense of purpose.

And yet…

I’m not hearing about that.  I think the students are coming.  When I talk to colleagues at the Board, some of them tell me that they have seen their numbers leap.  But I hear no official pronouncement from the Board welcoming these new learners, no billboards promising broad educational vistas to beaming newcomers. What’s more, I’m bombarded with frustratingly ill-informed messages from the media, stories of newcomers on 6-month waiting lists for English classes, or even one organization dismissing other sources of ESL education as “inadequate” for refugees.*** Even worse, I’m not hearing these claims refuted by the school boards.  I have first hand knowledge that classrooms are sitting half-empty.  We do have space for those students and we do have first-rate programs for helping them.  Why is nobody screaming this from the rooftops?

Community language organizations need to step up, to promote themselves as the best and most accessible option for the refugee community. This makes good business sense, but it’s also common courtesy: we need to let our New Canadians know that they are welcome here.  Management also has to improve internal communications.  Present this to your employees as an exciting new development, a challenge and an opportunity to learn more about another culture, a real chance to make a difference.  Make them see that the work they do is of vital importance — to each individual learner, but also to the country as a whole.

Before you yell at me

Yes I know.  I’m essentially an outsider at this point.  You may bristle at my easy criticisms. You may argue that in fact you are taking many steps to accommodate these new learners.  That’s as may be, but I’m not hearing it from where I am, and I’m pretty close to the ESL world.  You  should be making a noise that I can hear across the city.  Wake up, guys!  This is the work that we were born to do.

*this quote set off a chain of memories and associations that evolved into its own blogpost 

** at least he managed to keep his shirt on this time, as opposed to this one and this one; there’s also this.

***not linking or naming the parties involved, but it definitely did happen

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