• Poetry,  School Leadership

    Number Talks

    A Poem Inspired by Learning Together

    We tell a story about a mother who is seventy-four
    and a daughter who is forty-nine,
    adding up time and
    along the line between them.

    We share an open array of numbers,
    imagining parts and wholes,
    our strategies exposed by quantities
    of numbers decomposing and
    constant relationships in our minds
    –before even holding a pencil.

    Hand over heart we tap
    until we see a place
    in a string of familiar anchors
    and friendly landmarks.

    We can count back to see the value, partial
    products of flexibility now.

    Voices of facts and concepts
    and ways to solve
    burst with numerate enthusiasm
    and joy, seeing how the teacher
    draws our thoughts
    together on a whiteboard.
    We gasp at its simple magnitude.

  • School Leadership

    On Resiliency, Metaphor, and the Inner Landscape of a Teacher

    This paper contains excerpts summarizing my arts-informed Master’s thesis, autoethnographic reflections in the form of lyric, collage, and personal narrative exploring an inner, emotional journey to regaining strength and rediscovering passion after a period of teacher burn-out.

    The Jar as Metaphor: The Heart of My Learning

    The role of the Canadian educator has expanded  to supporting the whole student. From fear of violence in schools to increased awareness of mental health issues to data-driven school improvement plans, educators in Canada face many stresses. It has become common for educators to experience “burn-out,” to become cynical, or to feel overwhelmed by the pressure to be more than an expert in a given field. Today in education we are often supporting students in navigating the human experience.

    To build resiliency, educators need to come out of isolation and build communities of trust. We need to be able to acknowledge and express our inner landscapes: the thoughts and feelings beneath the surface of responding to every day routines, events, and duties. For me, metaphor became a way of accessing and expressing what I learned in my early years of teaching.

    For this inquiry, jars symbolized the collected stories and emotions of my inner life as a young teacher. By preserving memory and capturing experience in metaphorical jars, I discovered that a teacher can hold a moment up to the light for a closer look through the jar’s transparent walls.

    Jars can be used for preserving or collecting or storing or capturing. We purchase things in jars. We give things away in jars. From holding delicacies to treasures to waste to hardware, glass jars have lingered in homes and garages and schools and workplaces since the mid-1800s.

    Jars provide form. Jars give shape to their contents. Jars organize. Jars have their limitations too. They can be restrictive and confined, separating and compartmentalizing. Each jar has a limited capacity. Jars are fragile, chipping or shattering when dropped. Glass walls are transparent, leaving the contents vulnerable and visible.

    Looking through Glass Walls: The Value of Self-Reflection

    Self-understanding is integral to being a resilient educator. To me, education is about social change; it is about tending to community and supporting social justice. We are human first, then educators. Education is broader than the subject, it can connect to the common humanity in learners. We engage in inquiry together, to share diverse perspectives, to become partners in the discovery. A teacher can also be a facilitator, creating opportunities for critical engagement and dialectical thinking. Teachers are more than subject-matter experts. I feel it is the duty as an educator to go beyond the prescribed curriculum, to help build community, to be sure that students learn the names of other students in our class, to provide opportunities for students to celebrate individuality as well as to celebrate that which unifies us as people.

    Being an educator can be a monumental vocation when you “begin with the world.” Resiliency is essential.

    Teaching in a Bell Jar: My Story

    Teacher burn-out does not happen overnight. It is gradual, accumulative. My teacher burn-out was not a direct result of the events of September 11, 2001 but the events hung low like a heavy smoke blanket in my consciousness.

    In the days after September 11, I stood at the front of the class unable to answer the students’ questions about the events. I was twenty-six years old. I remember the school had made some announcements about sending prayers to the families of the deceased and the fire fighters who worked diligently to rescue people trapped in the debris. Staff occasionally talked about bits they had heard on the news over lunch. Friends and family exchanged sad comments akin to the mechanical small talk at a funeral. After a week passed, few people talked about the events.

    But students in my class had questions. Students talked about relatives in New York. Students wanted to know more about the buildings, the terrorists, the reasons why the events had taken place. Students looked to me, their teacher, for answers. I did not know how to articulate my fear and pain and frustration. I did not know how to support the students. I did not know where to find support for myself.

    The first five years of being an educator include many lessons. New teachers prepare unit plans and respond to student behavior while balancing co-curricular activities. New teachers experience, reflect, and change every day. Although learning is integral to the culture of a classroom teacher at all stages of his or her career, the first five years of teaching are paramount. New teachers learn through experience about pedagogy, curriculum, people, workplace politics, and self. Learning occurs in at least two circles: the outer circle of the self as teacher and the inner circle of the self as person. Like a Venn diagram the circles overlap.

    While a new teacher learns how to engage students and how to master curriculum in his or her outer circle, what is happening in his or her inner circle? How does he or she change through the process of learning?

    As I burned-out, my inner landscape was in trouble. On the outside I looked like a competent teacher. I responded to classroom events following school protocol. I moved through the curriculum while balancing the diverse needs of students. I supported coworkers who were having a bad day or a bad week. I found time to direct the school play and orchestrate the tech set-up for assemblies. I managed student behavior in a Drama room with no desks. Most of the time I was content. Some days I would say to my colleagues at lunch “I love my job.”

    Pride and shame prevented me from reaching out as a young teacher. I did not want to appear incompetent or incapable or unsatisfactory. I pretended to know how to respond. When I was asked how things were going in my class I replied “fine.” If witnessing a fight in the cafeteria while on duty bothered me, I kept quiet. I showed up to work and I smiled. I tried to focus on the positive things like the talent of the students in my classes or the small kindnesses I watched staff exchange each day.

    The more I repressed my feelings the harder it became to smile. It felt like I was taking in all the pain and sadness my students shared about their relationships, academic pressure, conflicts, and addictions. As more students reached out for help a little more air was pumped out of the bell jar. I did not know how to help the students nor how to protect myself from their pain. My empathetic nature internalized their sadness.

    To be resilient I needed to learn how to manage emotion. As the air was being pumped out of my bell jar I did not know that I was the one who was holding the vacuum.

    Filling the Jar: Life and Research Intersect

    David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle includes experiencing, reflecting, theorizing, and applying. Like many other educators, I experienced burn-out so I used my experience to explore the research. Through the healing process I reflected on what made me feel defeated in an attempt to make meaning out of the experience. Then I consulted doctors, counsellors, friends, and books to extend my understanding of burn-out. Finally, I created and implemented a plan for change. Kolb’s experiential learning cycle provides a framework for demonstrating how I learned to turn defeatism into resilience.

    Mary Catherine Bateson described learning as a spiral. Placing this idea alongside Kolb’s learning theory I can see how similar cycles and spirals can be. Kolb’s theory spiralled through my relationships, career decisions, and self- awareness. Cole and Knowles explained the experiential learning cycle/spiral: “Experience or practice provides the basis for reflection and analysis, which in turn informs future action.” Throughout my career, learning to be resilient will spiral through large and small events.

    The spiral started somewhere in the middle of my every day, going up, down, this way or that way. It seemed a light moved through the spiral itself like a dancing ball in a tube to show me where I have been, where I was in the present, and where I needed to go. The spiral had warm and cool spots, clear and foggy spots. What surprised me most was that everything connected in the spiral; everything was a part of everything else. Even in Kolb’s learning cycle all of the learning is informed by prior learning, everything connected.

    Marilyn Taylor’s model of the learning cycle suggests that learners begin with a disorientation phase or destabilizing experience. When I began my career I enjoyed teaching. I became disoriented when teaching became difficult and I lacked the inner strength to cope. Subsequently, I reached my saturation point and burned out. After I started asking for help and beginning the healing process, I had arrived at the Reorientation phase of Taylor’s cycle.

    Learning is change. Change is difficult. Learning how to overcome burn-out and develop resiliency was hard and slow. It took three years to move from realizing I needed help to regaining my zest for work and my confidence in responding to conflict.

    When I examined old journals I was surprised to discover two entries from 2004 that identified the problem and a solution. My writing revealed my growing apathy for teaching a “subject,” my sensitivity to personal relations at work, my draining energy from perceived monotony and poor self-care. It also listed my needs for teamwork, later mornings, a life outside of work, enthusiastic mentors, creative projects, and a deliberate approach to self-care.

    As Taylor’s cycle suggests I recognized that “the learner is where the learning happens and the learner’s own views and judgments are centrally involved.” To move into the next phase I needed to better understand how my perspective of the teaching environment became distorted, gain insight on how the pattern played out in my life, and apply the new perspective.

    If we layer Taylor’s more emotional cycle over Kolb’s experiential learning cycle it is clear that learning was happening on many levels. As Taylor’s cycle indicates I had the experience of burning out. For two years I reflected on what upset the balance in my life and began to ask questions about how I could develop inner strength. I began to make meaning and conceptualize what was happening. To shift my perspective I needed a catalyst.

    When I learned how to trust my community of friends, family, and colleagues, my engagement in teaching could feel reborn. Both Kolb’s experiential learning cycle and Taylor’s learning cycle fit naturally with learning that occurred before I knew of their cycles. Learning processes were at work in my life even when I was not aware.

    The Fairy Tale: Life as a New Teacher

    Once upon a time a teacher gets a first job. He has always wanted to be a teacher. She is thrilled. He works hard. She loves her work. He says yes to supervise dances, attend parent nights, coach basketball, moderate the Eco Club, and run the school’s recycling program. Life is good.

    One day she gets tired but she does not take time to rest. He adds more supervising and coaching and moderating to his schedule. She thinks about her students when she is at work and when she is at home. His life becomes his work. Then she burns out. He feels defeated. She prays for strength. He starts to resent the time he spends at school. She responds in cranky tones when students ask for help. He carries the weight of his work on his back and does not even stop to use his health benefits for a massage.

    She finds a pamphlet in her mailbox at work about the employee assistance program. He talks about how tired he is and how hard it is to say no. She wishes she worked at the bank. Now he also moderates the school’s breakfast program. Her work and life are out of balance. With the help of his friends, his family, and his bulldog named Lucy he makes changes. The changes are small at first.

    She goes for walks every morning. He goes to bed earlier so he can read his favourite Canadian authors like Joseph Boyden and Yann Martel and Alice Munro. She takes a break from coaching. He declines hosting the department party. She needs space, just for a year. He needs to get the house ready for when his baby is born. She joins recreational volley-ball in the evenings. He learns how to landscape. She has movie night with the girls. He has Saturday morning coffee with the guys.

    Then, like magic, she likes teaching Creative Writing again. He laughs with the students every day. She wakes up before the alarm clock. He looks forward to marking because he is curious to know if the students are learning. She is proud to be a teacher. He applies for a job as department head. And the students and teacher lived happily ever after….

    The story does not end here. Our lives do not follow a three act structure. The end of burn-out does not guarantee everlasting happiness and peace and passion. Likewise, every story is as unique as each individual teacher. After a teacher experiences burn-out she may choose to make changes. If the teacher is a reflective practitioner, he may use the experience as a learning opportunity. Healing after burn- out can take weeks or months or years.

    But a teacher can choose to burn-in. Burning-in is about finding a mind, body, ground, sky connection. It is about listening to an inner voice, living in the present, being aware of intention, and finding passion in work. It is about dreaming and creating and listening and giving and feeling. Through burning-in I gained a deeper understanding of self, affirmed my calling as an educator, and developed resiliency to cope when the work became challenging again.

    Defining “Burn-In:” We Have Choices

    Writing allows me to take a moment and put it in a jar. Then I hold the jar up to the light and examine it, see how it can be changed when different elements are added or taken away.

    To burn-in is to look inside oneself for wisdom, for direction, for strength. To burn-in is to connect to the fire in one’s belly that motivates and inspires. Engaged in a continuous cycle of praxis, reflection and action, our inner worlds change.

    Toward the end of the summer of 2004 I had developed an action plan that included regular self check-ins, attention to self-care, a better work-life balance. But it also listed healthy ways to express and cope with emotion, how to safeguard myself from the negative energy of others, how to resist over-committing to demands on my time, how to transition when a dread of returning to work settled in on a Sunday night, and finally how to remain connected to my preferred, balanced, seemingly in control self.

    Metaphor and Inquiry: How Metaphor Helped Me Make Meaning Out of Experience

    Sunshine in a Jar is a symbol to represent the inner life. It is an ideal state of being. It represents creativity and spirit and passion and resiliency and interconnectedness and love. This metaphor served as the entry point to the inquiry. I had many questions. How does Sunshine in a Jar connect to my identity and perspective? How does the metaphor connect to and reveal my inner life? Could metaphor be used as a tool for gaining a greater understanding of self? What is the value of a personal metaphor? What are the stories or events in my life that demonstrate the significance of Sunshine in a Jar?

    The use of arts-informed inquiry opened up and represented my inner life in ways that surprised me. It gave me access to memory and emotion. As the work evolved, a definition of Sunshine in a Jar surfaced as a symbol of resilience and passion. I wondered how I could use my story of developing resiliency and rediscovering a love of teaching after a period of burn-out to support other young teachers. I wondered if by sharing my journey, by articulating inner learning, I could share possibilities with other teachers experiencing burn-out. Arts-informed inquiry could accomplish two things: represent the inner life of an educator and appeal to a wide audience.

    When I think of Sunshine in a Jar I think about light, creativity, enthusiasm, insight, vocation, and love. The image embodies my understanding of resiliency. The glass jar is the form, the container that permits me to capture things or ideas that seem impossible, and to carry them wherever I choose. The glass jar can also preserve brightness and strength. I can take the lid off whenever I want to let life, people or feeling into the jar or out of the jar. It is a personal metaphor, its meaning can change as I change.

    Many teachers experience burn-out. Many teachers have developed resiliency as a result. The importance of the inquiry was not just about telling a story of burn-out and resiliency. Rather, it was an opportunity to learn how to articulate the experience in order to share it with other teachers, to represent story from the inside-out.

    Who are Resilient Teachers?

    Resilient Teachers:

    • Have a sense of self-efficacy and ignite a sense of efficacy in others.
    •  Acknowledge the inner life and draws on inner strength in times of difficulty to perspective can change, life can change.
    • Feel comfortable with not knowing all the answers.
    • Are prepared and flexible.
    • Understand that they cannot always be in control.
    • Put their trust in others, including students, colleagues, administrators, and their personal circles of influence.
    • Trust their intuition.
    • May be afraid, but they do not let fear prevent them from doing what needs to be done.
    • Show up, they open the door even though the writing on the wall does not match their expectations.
    • Understand the rewards of being still, of careful observation, and of curiosity.
    • Try to live in the moment. The past does not define the future. Rather, the past and future inform the present.
    • Seek learning opportunities in large and small events.
    • Understand that inner strength develops within community. Teaching and learning can be limited in isolation and can be enriched by solitude.
    • Take risks.
    • Listen to their inner voices.
    • Are reflective practitioners.
    • Recognize moments of insight.
    • Make decisions rooted in purpose, passion, and integrity.
    • Respond to the world around them.
    • Understand interconnectedness, cause and effect, and the greater good.
    • Choose to turn adversity into opportunity.

    Like a child who enters the backyard on a beautiful day with an empty jar and a curious mind, this inquiry welcomed surprise. Above all, to be resilient educators need to have open minds. What does your jar look like? What do you keep inside? Open the jar.

    1. Myles Horton inspires me: “Go to the people. Learn from them. Live with them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But the best of leaders when the job is done, when the task is accomplished, the people will all say we have done it ourselves” (Horton & Freire, 1990, pp. 247-248).
    2. Boal and Freire inspire me to facilitate for the purpose of connecting learners to the world, to each other: “For Freire, humans can lift themselves to a higher level of consciousness and become subjects to the extent of their interventions in society, their reflection on this intervention, and their commitment to this engagement in society” (Elias & Meriam, 2005, p. 154).
    3. To be thoroughly, humanly ‘with the world’ means that people would have developed a critical perception and would have taken collectively their environmental, social, political, and economic destiny into their own hands. To begin that struggle is to begin with the world” (Mojab, Winter 2011).
    4. “Most of [first year teachers] describe their first year of teaching as positive, reporting the experience as excellent (32 per cent) or good (47 per cent) and their professional satisfaction as excellent (28 per cent) or good (40 per cent). Similar numbers report that their confidence level is excellent (29 per cent) or good (45 per cent). Almost half (48 per cent) give an unsatisfactory rating to their job security. And yet, almost four out of five (78 per cent) say they are optimistic for their professional future” (McIntyre, 2011).
    5. “Lessons too complex to grasp in a single occurrence spiral past again and again, small examples gradually revealing greater and greater implications” (Bateson, 1994, p. 30).
    6. (Cole & Knowles, 2008, p. 94)
    7. “If the change is experienced as disconfirming, that is, one that disconfirms one’s self-system or personal model of reality, then the individual is thrown into a disorientation phase in which confusion, anxiety, and tension increase and the learner experiences a crisis of self-confidence” (MacKeracher, 2004, p. 64).
    8. (MacKeracher, 2004, p. 67)
    9. “Most of our life we’re put in a cage, where we sing the same song day in and day out. But life is not about being caged, life is about flying” (Heward & Bacon, 2006, p. 132).
    10. “Resilience, defined as the capacity to continue to ‘bounce back,’ to recover strengths or spirit quickly and efficiently in the face of adversity, is closely allied to a strong sense of vocation, self-efficacy and motivation to teach which are fundamental to a concern for promoting achievement in all aspects of students’ lives” (Gu & Day, 2007, p. 1302).


    Bateson, M. C. (1994). Peripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.

    Castro, A. J., Kelly, J., & Shih, M. (2010). Resilience Strategies for New Teachers in HighNNeeds Areas. Teaching and Teacher Educa;on, 622N629.

    Cole, A. L., & Knowles, J. G. (2001). Lives in Context: The Art of Life History Research. Lanham, MA: AltaMira Press.

    Cole, A. L., & Knowles, J. G. (2008). ArtsNInformed Research. In J. G. Knowles, & A. L. Cole, Handbook of the Arts in Qualita;ve Research (pp. 55N70). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage PublicaXons.

    Cole, A. L., & Knowles, J. G. (2008). Researching Teaching: Exploring Teacher Development through Reflexive Inquiry. Halifax, Nova ScoXa: Backalong Books.

    Esquith, R. (2007). Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire. New York, NY: Penguin. Gu, Q., & Day, C. (2007). Teachers Resilience: A Necessary CondiXon for EffecXveness.

    Teaching and Teacher Educa;on, 1302N1316. Heward, L., & Bacon, J. U. (2006). The Spark: Igni;ng the Crea;ve Fire that Lives Within Us

    All. Toronto, Ontario: Doubleday Canada. Horton, M., & Freire, P. (1990). We Make the Road by Walking: Conversa;ons on Educa;on

    and Social Change. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press. Leithwood, K., & Riehl, C. (2003). What We Know About Successful School Leadership.

    Opening the Jar/Outram 20

    Philadelphia, PA: Laboratory for Student Success, Temple University. MacKeracher, D. (2004). Making Sense of Adult Learning (Second Edi;on). Toronto, Ontario:

    University of Toronto Press Incorporated.

    McIntyre, F. (2011, March). Transi;on to Teaching 2010. Retrieved May 23, 2011, from Professionally Speaking: The Magazine of the Ontario College of Teachers: hep:// professionallyspeaking.oct.ca/march_2011/features/T2T.aspx

    Mezirow, J. a. (2000). Learning as Transforma;on: Cri;cal Perspec;ves on a Theory in Progress (Josse Bass Higher and Adult Educa;on). San Francisco, CA: JosseyNBass.

    Mojab, S. (Winter 2011). Adult EducaXon Without Borders. In S. Mojab, Introduc;on to Adult Educa;on Winter Session Course Pack. Toronto, Ontario: Department of Adult EducaXon and Community Development & Counselling Psychology, OISE, University of Toronto.

    Nagel, G. (1994). The Tao of Teaching. New York, NY: Primus.

    Outram, Jessica (2011). Opening the Jar: Autoethnographic Reflec;ons on Teaching and Developing Resiliency. MA thesis. Toronto, Ontario: Department of Adult EducaXon and Counselling Psychology, OISE, University of Toronto. Web. University of Toronto Research Repository.

    Palmer, P. J. (1998). The Courage to Teach. San Francisco, Ca: John Wiley & Sons.

    Pink, D. H. (2006). A Whole New Mind: Why Right[Brainers Will Rule the Future. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

    Opening the Jar/Outram 21

    Public Agenda. (2007). A Mission of the Heart: What Does It Take to Transform a School? New York, NY: Wallace FoundaXon.

    Thorpe, K., & Chenier, L. (2011). Building Mentally Healthy Workplaces: Perspec;ves of Canadian Workers and Front[Line Managers. Oeawa, Ontario: The Conference Board of Canada.

  • Life Lessons,  School Leadership

    What Does “#MeToo” Mean for Schools?

    One winter a student posted a status update on social media that went something like, “I hate that fat girl in the yoga pants.”

    For two weeks, streams of girls came to me upset to be the target of harassment. Most of the girls didn’t know the ‘bully’ personally but were certain it related to their yoga pants.  When I interviewed the one who wrote the comment, she revealed the target. It was a slam against her former best friend to hurt her, nothing to do with the many girls who cried themselves to sleep for weeks after it was posted. It broke my heart. 15 different girls had told me 15  different stories about self image and belonging.

    I think of those yoga pants sometimes and I wonder about what else is going through the individual minds of young girls while they are alone on social media.

    I also wonder how girls are affected by the #MeToo hashtag that’s going around. And then I think about the many girls in schools who have shared their stories with me over the years. I wonder what they are doing now. I wonder if they’ve found a way to heal, to take charge of a new narrative that builds them up rather than lingering in one that makes them feel torn down. I wonder about the subtext of #MeToo, the underlying emotional pulls, the accompanying memories, the what’s next…. As an adult, the subtext of #MeToo can be empowering, a symbol of solidarity and strength, or it could be an invitation to seek help. Does a teenage girl interpret it in these ways too? How does it affect her sense of belonging and self image?

    And so over the past month I’ve thought a lot about many of the girls in the schools I’ve worked in over the years.  I’ve remembered that the pain and scope can stretch far and wide. This isn’t a story about one girl, but about many girls over many years. It was important to me to write this post to show their courage and resilience, to use writing to reflect on the complexity of the situation for girls today. I want to remember how necessary it is to listen to their individual stories and how something essential could be missed if we don’t.

    Warning: The content is sensitive and may be upsetting.

    It’s a Tuesday morning. Ms. L shows up at my office door. She has that look, the look that tells me something big has happened, the look that says, Take a deep breath, Jessica.

    “Kate came to see me this morning. She shared something. She wants to tell you too,” she says.


    Then Ms. L lets it out fast, as if the speed will lessen the impact, make it all seem more manageable.

    Kate comes into my office. She casts her eyes to the floor. The energy surrounding her looks contained like she’s struggling to hold it in, like a held breath in a bad-smelling room.

    “What happened?” I ask.

    Kate sighs—and then her story comes tumbling out with a burst of air. She talks about how she had a fight with her boyfriend. A bad fight. They threw things at each other. The apartment they shared in town was no longer safe. Things had been getting worse. Sean hit her. She yelled. And then “it” happened. She was raped. When she could escape, she ran to a friend’s house, stayed the night, decided to tell the us about it now,  weeks later. “I haven’t been sleeping,” she said. “I’m still living at Sean’s. I think I should move. Maybe. It hasn’t happened again, so maybe it’s okay. He was so sorry.”

    In this moment, Kate is so open, so trusting, so desperate for peace that her truth is raw. Kate and Ms. L and I cry together.

    We call her mother. We ask her to come to the school immediately. Kate hadn’t seen her mother in a week.

    Kate asks us to stay in the room with her when her mother arrives. When Kate tells her mother about the event, her mother falls to her knees and sobs. Kate stands and holds her mother’s head against her leg, soothing her.  Then Kate’s mother reveals she had been in an abusive relationship too. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” she says. Kate had grown up witnessing her mother’s struggles with love and domestic violence.

    The women stand holding each other, crying. Then we all hug and cry together before Kate and her mother go to the police station.

    Six months pass. Kate is living at home again. Sean misses her and regularly tries to win her back.

    The police come to the school. Kate is in the hospital. Kate is 18 now. She asked the police to call the school instead of her mom. Kate had tried to take her own life.

    A couple weeks later,  Kate returns to school and we develop a plan with the help of a social worker. Kate identifies three caring adults at the school who she feels safe going to when she feels distressed. Kate says she wants to heal, to feel like herself, to reconnect to life. Somehow she remembers hope, she says. A tiny crack in her dark world lets in the light, expanding each time she trusts us with a story, an insight, a goal, a worry. The social worker and the teacher work with Kate to help her find safe housing, to help her rebuild her life again. Kate works so hard.

    Kate has now graduated from high school and a college program. She works full time. She is engaged. She is excited to have a daughter of her own one day. She says that she didn’t start to feel safe until the police issued a restraining order preventing Sean from contacting her. Kate is still working things out with her mom, but every year it gets easier.

    And I could share “Sean’s” story too. Sean is also one of my students. He has been in foster care since he was three. He has lived in 11 different homes. When he turned 16, his worker decided it would be easier for Sean to live in his own apartment than with a family. Sean struggles in school sometimes and has not made any connections with the staff. He started skipping classes in Grade 9 because he didn’t want his peers to know he couldn’t read. He steals things sometimes even though he has enough money for rent and groceries. It’s tough because there is no one to call when Sean is struggling. His worker’s office is 3 hours away. Who is raising Sean? Who is teaching him how to love?

    Sean loves Kate. She is the only person he has ever felt love for in his whole life. He plans to marry Kate. It scares him when they fight. He is afraid of losing her.

    Sean has an explosive temper at school sometimes. He bruised his fist punching the door when he was mad. When I talk to Sean about his temper he pulls his hoodie up around so it covers most of his face and says, “I don’t eff-ing care.”

    Kate didn’t charge Sean at first. She told the police her story but decided not to press charges. She said she didn’t want all the drama. Sean dropped out of school when he turned 18 a few weeks later. He had 16/30 credits. Kate said, “he won’t be at school so I’ll be fine.”

    When Kate was in the hospital, he tried to visit her. She found the strength to advocate for herself. Soon there was a restraining order in place.

    As Kate put her own life back together, Sean’s life continued to fall apart. He lost everything. He got in some big trouble with the law and within 6 months was arrested and imprisoned. He still has no family.

    Before I started listening closely to students I would have found this story too extreme, but every year I meet students with stories as complex as Sean’s and Kate’s. I hope all the “Kates” out there are reaching out to people they trust. I hope all the “Seans” out there have people who they can call family who will teach them how to love. Everyone has a right to feel safe.

    And these are just two stories. Each time I see someone post the #MeToo to signal that they have been a victim of sexual harassment or sexual violence, I know there is an individual, complex story. The first step is sharing. Awareness. Then we need to plan…

    In a school, our number one priority is that students feel safe. How can we do this better? How can we make our communities safer? Our world safer? How can we prevent harassment and violence? What do we need to teach our children and teens? How will school, home, and community work together for change?

    “It takes a village…”

    Thank-you to all the educators out there who provide a safe haven. Each school I’ve worked at over the years has had a team of caring adults who quietly help many “Kates” and “Seans” each week.

    I wish I had more answers. For now I continue to work on listening…

    * Confidentiality is important to me. Therefore, this is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.  

  • Creative Writing,  Creativity,  School Leadership

    Learning from Students About Daily Writing Practice

    Zorb in New Zealand

    Write freely and without censor.

    Free-writing is a stream of consciousness writing. The ideas flow to the page as they arrive even if the connections are not initially seen. It’s not about structure or grammar or spelling. Free-writing is the most powerful type of writing practice as it teaches students that writing is essentially  about expression and thought.

    My English classes usually started with free-writing. Students arrived, took their seats, prepared their workspace, looked at the board for a prompt, and began to write.

    Most students liked structure, routines, and clear instructions. Among the most engaging prompts were student-generated ones.

    Even with a prompt writing can feel like getting in a big bubble and rolling down a hill by a farmer’s field. At first we feel strange, a lack of control, but then we realize it is safe, we will end up somewhere, and we accept the surprises that come with the experience.

     Write about the ideas in books. Writing is about making connections.

    One year we studied John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, a coming-of-age story about an extraordinary boy and his friend growing up in a New England town in the 1950s and 1960s. Owen believes he is an instrument of God and prepares to live out his self-prophesized destiny. The book sparked many questions for the students about friendship and faith and fate— after an exhilarating debate about family, students struggled to reconnect to the literary devices or plot details. We often spent most of the class exploring how Irving’s themes related to our experiences. Story was a vehicle for students to develop understanding about big ideas that mattered to them.

    They gravitated to the big questions. Is there a God? What happens when I die? Does love have a limit?

    Anytime we shifted out of the mechanics of story and into the realm of life, students engaged eagerly. The questions offered big empty spaces for diverse perspectives. Students respected that we could have different ideas about death or love. Abstract thinking was fascinating to them. For many, it was the first time they talked freely about death, exploring theories and beliefs without the influence of their parents by engaging in structured dialogue with their peers.

    Our daily writing prompts became the big questions students posed while reading Owen Meany’s story.

    Reading and writing are interdependent activities.

    Students demonstrated the most growth in their critical thinking and expressive writing when the topic was relevant to their experiences and when it complemented the other work we were doing in class.

    Some days I put this on the board: “Free choice—write what you like.” Students spent much more time chatting with their friends about the party on the weekend than writing. Many students didn’t get past putting the date on the page, saying “I’ll do it when I get home.”

    Students consistently wrote less when they were given free choice.

    On the days where I didn’t put anything on the board, students defended their right to skip the writing part of class because the topic was missing. “We could just take a break,” they’d say.

    To write every day, teenagers need to be interested in the topic, to be invited to explore big ideas in fresh ways. Students also need the routine (accountability) of writing daily.

    Adult writers often need structure and a purpose too.

    Otherwise we can look for distractions and excuses. The paradox: to liberate our writing we need limits.

    Every day we write is a beginning—

    We can allow the words to guide us through the complexities of memory, forming details on the page without censor or expectation, welcoming surprise, opening up pathways and bridges and yellow brick roads to memory that seem to belong to another far-off version of ourselves.

    As I get older, I learn that memory can be a tricky coyote, filing my experiences in non-linear ways, mixing them up with others, sending out pieces at a time as memory.

    Can you remember specific details about your childhood? What happens when you look closely at the moment and try to recall what happened just before or just after?

    And so it’s time to begin.

    I sit at my desk. I breathe. And go.

    Luckily I have no shortage of ideas now, just a shortage of writing time.

  • Creative Writing,  Creativity,  School Leadership

    What Does Learning Look Like?

    What if we captured our learning in jars, exploring questions and details and ideas through glass walls…

    …like a child collects caterpillars in a jar.

    Children treasure their collections. They check in on them. They poke holes in the lid to make sure the collections can breathe.

    What if we collected experiences and insights and feelings in the same way? A jar of travel. A jar of gratitude. A jar of story.

    When we hold a jar up to the light for a better look, what do we see?

    How can I make space to capture the lessons learned in a day, a month, a year?

  • Creative Writing,  Creativity,  School Leadership

    Open the Jar: When Creativity Takes You Somewhere Unexpected

    There is freedom in a metaphor. I love its openness to possibility.

    When creativity flows well writing is as easy as taking the lid off the jar, grasping streams of inspiration as they swirl above, and then sprinkling words onto the page. Sometimes it can feel like confidently singing a song you’ve known for a long time. Often when I write poetry the story appears all at once and catches me by surprise.

    Over the years I’ve noticed that I like to write about what I’ve learned. Through the act of writing my learning deepens, my understanding shifts, and my wishes clarify. We can learn from every experience. When we look at things in different ways, we can see differently. When we allow our intuition to guide us and we give permission for the voice deep inside to rise and fill the page, we find our story. We find ourselves. As much as creative expression can offer us soaring freedom it can also offer us deep-rooted connection to our values.

    Writing the poem “Open the Jar” transformed my understanding of sunshine in a jar to include gratitude and generosity. I learned that this light isn’t a beacon of happiness but a symbol of hope.


    I remember the day I wrote this poem.

    When the idea to write the poem appeared I leapt out of my chair, wanting to avoid it. But the idea followed me down the hall. I took a deep breath, returned to the chair, picked up my pen, and wrote a poem about some of my most difficult moments as a young teacher.

    There is so much we are not prepared for when we begin our teaching careers. Sometimes we are growing up alongside the students we are teaching. I was in my mid-twenties. My students faced challenges I couldn’t imagine. The students taught me about resiliency, grit, and perseverance through challenge.

    I learned the importance of community and building a school culture where all students feel safe.

    I learned about the strength of my colleagues and the value of having a mentor.

    I learned that by listening to the students we could better identify the issues and work toward change.

    I learned how even in the face of challenge and tragedy schools can be models of courage, truth, love, and wisdom.

    Open the Jar


    Last night I opened the jar and it whispered to me,

    “a piece of the story is missing.”



    I wished the thought had stayed in the jar,

    wished to rewind,

    go back to the moment before

    I released the latch and

    eased the lid.


    Open the jar.

    Blue dot days glued to glass,

    days of Sylvia’s bell jar and

    cobwebs and fatigue and

    frustration and sleep and

    tears and


    Blue dots

    drowning my calendar,

    blue dots

    covering my day book—

    a giant blue bruise.


    You should know,

    I teach outside the city

    in a nice suburban



    Open the jar.

    A morning swarming at 7:45

    two hundred teenagers

    chase a grade ten


    angry faces

    push against glass,

    she calls for help.


    Open the jar.

    Pepper chokes


    chairs, clocks, and computers…

    A toxic shot

    in the head.

    Later, a fifteen-year-old boy

    wears handcuffs

    and not the kind from his joke store.


    Open the jar.

    Racism, bullying, homophobia,

    illiteracy, drugs, eating disorders

    spiralling around bells

    passing days and

    heedless years.

    Take the lid off the subtext.


    Open the jar.

    A friend defines “suddenly”

    when our student

    dies…and then another.

    Words evaporate

    hearts frozen in crowded hallways.


    Open the jar.

    Julie whispers of last night’s rape

    during attendance

    digital now

    twenty-first century tracking of



    Open the jar.

    I pass Tina her graded work and

    she asks if she should visit her boyfriend,

    in jail

    even though

    he was charged:

    attempted murder

    she thinks

    only yesterday she smoked pot, drank vodka, slept with

    Tonya, and cut herself on her left arm for the sixth time.


    Jars lined up like child soldiers

    down a long corridor of black-hearted

    steel lockers collecting

    souls. We all felt it

    clouds building chains around teen dreams.

    Teacher machines


    We forgot the taste

    of sunshine




    lid twisted tight

    within the glass grooves.


    But in time we learned

    to gently turn the lid,

    open the jar

    and sometimes we found something

    for somebody

    and in time we learned to capture sunshine.


    Open the jar—


  • Creativity,  School Leadership

    Creativity in the Classroom Begins with an Idea

    It’s my second year teaching high school. I work in a big school with about two thousand students. In Grade 11 Advanced English we study Macbeth.


    “Miss, do we really have to write another essay?” a lanky boy in the front row asks.

    “What are you proposing? Do you have another idea?”

    “We should make a play,” a girl suggests.

    Another girl says, “We could invite other classes to watch!”

    The students slouched in the back of the room adjust, leaning into the discussion.

    “How would we begin?” I ask.

    The students talk at once, shocked that the idea of substituting an essay is possible. The volume in the room grows.

    “We’d have to decide how much of the play we want to do,” a girl says.

    “And we could have jobs—”

    “—I could do costumes!”

    “I want to be a witch!”

    “Everyone can do something backstage too.”

    “We can turn our portable into a theatre—”

    “What if I brought in lights my dad uses at Christmas for our stage?”

    “—and I can bring in a cauldron.”

    “Jo can make a head for the end!”

    I stand by the board at the front of our portable, trying to capture their thoughts in chalk as they fire them out one after another. They brainstorm until the board is full.

    “So does this mean we can do it?” a boy asks.

    I pause for dramatic effect, squinting my eyes, squishing my lips up into a thinking face. “Hmmmm,” I say. “You make a really good case. I would love to support you on this—where does the writing fit?”

    A girl stands up, talking and moving her arms. “I know! We can write a reflection on our characters or a reflection about what we learned.”

    Working with teenagers I witnessed creativity every day. We staged Macbeth in our portable that semester. Students collaborated to make props, to paint large sheets of paper to use as a backdrop taped to our chalkboard. Students decided which scenes to include. From directing to acting to finding an audience for the work, the students engaged in every step of the creative process. We had some challenges with meeting deadlines, getting along, balancing different levels of enthusiasm for the project—but the students persevered. Our audience (another Grade 11 class) surprised us by showing up in Elizabethan-inspired costumes. We all learned a lot about how to bring an idea into being, about how to create.


    Creativity is the swirling energy that starts with an idea and expands with each new connection, idea by idea, until the ideas land somewhere, turning into something to be shared. Creativity is about process, the ways of bringing an idea into being, the act of creating.

    To begin take some time each day to capture ideas–as many as you can. And then when it feels right, try some of them on.