It's all about the narrative



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



Here’s another voice in the empathy conversation

The Trouble With Empathy

Teacherpants Empathy Part 2 Coming soon

Set piece/wistful leitmotif

strange things you get when you googleimage letimotif, but this one makes sense
(strange things you get when you googleimage letimotif, but this one makes sense)

There’s a kind of watershed when it comes to memory.  Too close to an event, you can’t really process it; too far, and you start to lose the nuance of the experience.  I feel that I’ve come to that point in my memories of Overland. I’m finding ways to articulate things better than I could when I was immersed in that world, but I sense that if I wait any longer, I will no longer be able to truly capture the experience.  It’s already starting to happen with the Overland Heyday stories.  My semantic memory of that time is pretty good, but the episodic is becoming vague and generalized.  I can write about how Overland made me feel, and I have done so here and here and here and this whole series.  However, I can’t really capture what it felt like to teach a particular class.  That teacher is so different from the person I am now that we can’t even talk to each other.

I became aware of the fading of these memories  as I wrote this article.   The story is set in the Later Overland era,  but even so,  I realized that the scene was already slipping away from me, and that if I was going to write this, it should be now.

This originally started as a set piece that I was working on for a very pragmatic reason: I needed something  halfway serious to do while I was supervising a test.  In other words,  I didn’t want the students to see that telltale shade of blue radiating from my screen. It’s a response to the imagined prompt:  Talk about a lesson that you are particularly proud of.  This is actually a series of lessons leading up to a pizza lunch, although the pizza lunch itself was distinctly underwhelming.

Two events precipitated this series.  There was a famine in East Africa, and schools around the city were raising funds for relief efforts  The TDSB had offered to match any funds raised.  Around the same time, TIFF screened the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc , which articulated the first quiet suggestion of criticism of the breast cancer awareness campaign.

pink ribbons

I used an audio clip from a radio interview with the producers of the film and located  some print background material.  The class compared the different resources and discussed the ethics and practice of charitable donation.  I was so impressed with the interaction, the level of sophistication and engagement, that I decided to extend the conversation.  It seemed like an ideal lead-in to a fundraising activity.

So I devised a series of lessons in the course of which the students would to choose a charity to donate to, publicize the cause and the event, and then perform the actual fund-raiser.

Students worked in groups.  The first task was to identify a cause that they considered important.  They then researched the aid groups that  targeted that particular group or problem.** Students worked together to prepare an information sheet on their chosen organization and its mission.   Through discussion, they identified the arguments for and against choosing the organization as the recipient of our funds.

Each group shared their information with the class.  We then discussed the relative merits of the different programs.  There was a real range of knowledge and experience: some students were thinking critically about these issues for the first time; others had experienced  directly the situations at which the aid was directed; still others had worked with the NGOs we were discussing**.

The students worked hard to determine the group that best matched their values, and ended up choosing MSF.  Key factors were the effectiveness of their programs, the absence of geographical restrictions, and the transparency of their mission.

The next step was to create the print publicity.  We discussed  the basics of poster making and the need for balance between attracting attention and relaying information.  We talked about how to make the content appealing and accessible, and about why it was a bad idea to copy and paste chunks of material from the internet.  We then negotiated the logistics of getting access to the only colour printer in the school, and posted the documents.

In the week before the actual day we broadcast the information over the PA system.  Normally strong, confident  speakers volunteer to read an English script.  It is challenging, but it is  very valuable experience, especially for students who plan to undergo the ordeal of the TOEFL Speaking Test.

Earlier that term, however, one of the other teachers, Glenn, had experimented with bilingual broadcasts (Spanish and English) for soccer team announcements.  We decided to take it one step further and provide announcements in languages that reflected the school population. There was a discussion as to which languages should be used; then strong speakers were chosen from each of the dominant language groups.  They decided on the key details of the message and then wrote out two versions, in English and translated.   They worked with a partner from the same country to make sure that the translated version was smooth and accurate.

Watching the delivery of these PA messages was fascinating.  When the students switched into their native languages, it was as if they had slipped on new clothes.  Their voices were stronger; even their body language became more assured:  it was yet one more reminder that these students had really been persons of stature in their original countries.  I enjoyed watching the reactions of the students from other classes:  that slight double take when they realized they were hearing their mother tongue.  The announcements generated inter-class discussions: comparisons of the sounds of the different languages, and the dialects and accents within individual languages, and suggestions that other languages be included.***


The pizza lunch itself was, as I said, anticlimactic.  The scheduling made it difficult for the students to be involved in the actual serving; other events had made the day unusually chaotic; and well nobody really likes pizza that much anyway.  Later on, I was told that we had missed the deadline for the fund matching, but ours would not have been matched anyway because we had not chosen to earmark the funds for East Africa.****

So as an actual fundraising event, this was not an amazing success.  However, it’s one of those moments I come back to when I want to remind myself of the enormous wealth of talent, intelligence and experience that I encountered every day in the Overland classroom.  It keeps me humble , at the same time as it strengthens my belief in the benefits of an open immigration policy.

When I look back on that, and notice what year it was, I realize that I was already halfway out the door at Overland, but I didn’t see it at the time.  Sometimes a peak experience like this gives us renewed vigour for our job, but it can also be bittersweet.  When you realize that yes this is as good as it gets, no matter how good that good is, it may be a signal that it’s time to move on.





* Students often became aware of an asymmetry between need and services, sometimes because a problem did not have a clear and coherent solution, sometimes because the cause just was  not as media friendly.  The essential unfairness of  the marketing of the more glamorous causes at the expense of others became a key consideration in our discussions.  This was one of the  factors in  our decision not to choose an event-specific charity: we wanted the organization to spend the money where it was most needed, not where the media attention was most focussed.

**For example, one student was a former member of Veterinarians Without Borders, which in not nearly as cute and cuddly as you might think.

***There was an interesting contrast among the language groups.  Some students were quite eager to have their language represented.  In contrast, one language was fairly widely featured at Overland, but its speakers were hesitant to present it as one of the school languages.  There was no obvious political reason for this: it was more a matter of the particular character of the country in question.  If you speak the language yourself, you might be able to guess which one I’m talking about.

**** As part of our decision was based on avoiding ear-marked charities, I can’t say I really regret this.

A refusal to not mourn


Dylan Thomas

I’m not going to apologize for crying over Paris.

And yes, I did hear of the attack on Beirut. When I read the story on the 12th,  I remember thinking, “That’s an awfully high casualty figure for a country that’s not technically at war.’  And I wondered whether our refugee family was ok.

And yes, we mourn the loss of life in both places.  But how can one truly grieve death in such numbers when comprehending the loss of a single human life is enough to tear one’s soul apart?  How can a person do that and still get up in the morning, hug one’s children, open one’s heart to strangers, fight to spread light amidst the darkness?

So we do our best, but we grieve imperfectly.

But this is not that.  This is the same gutshot feeling  that swept over me as I read about the destruction of Palmyra.

Paris is our city.

I’m sure that 3 million still-feisty Frenchmen and women just bristled at that, but as I watch the Facebook profiles of my Canadian friends flicker into red, white, and blue, I know it is so.

As much as Mesopotamia or the Yellow River, Paris is a cradle of civilization.

Cradle of civilization — we bandy around the cliché so carelessly, but we forget that a cradle is a sacred space.  A cradle is  where we place what is most precious to us — a newly created life.

In cradles we shelter these beings that are entirely powerless.  Under our care, they become autonomous and eventually outstrip us.

A cradle of civilization is a human location that has created an environment capable of nurturing a new spirit.  At first, this idea is new and vulnerable, but it grows into a spirit that spreads across countries and civilizations, a spirit that survives long after the human bodies have perished.

At so many times in history, Paris has been a nursery for these spirits, spirits of beauty and creativity, but also spirits of freedom and democracy.

These spirits have become part of who we are, even those of us who have never opened a French book or travelled to France.

These spirits are present in the stories I tell and the language I use, but they also determine how I hear a piece of music, how I see colours, how I taste a cookie, how I perceive my body as I move through space.

Paris is part of who I am and Friday’s massacre was an attack on the essence of Paris itself.

A human force deliberately set out to erase these spirits,  just as deliberately as it erased the human lives.

And this is why I am crying for Paris.

  • thanks for the inspiration to T Dilworth
  • After I published this post, this  article popped up on my newsfeed.  I love the way the organized presentation of data helps me understand a little but of what I’m feeling.


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