The gift of presence

February 8, 2024   ·   0 Comments

By Anthony Carnovale

Truth be told, I still get a little nervous at the beginning of every new school year. The feelings — fear, worry, awe, excitement — that I felt on the first day of kindergarten, grades 9, 10, 11, 12 and OAC, and every first day of a new university year, have also carried over into my teaching career. Most stories that I read online are about first-year teachers being nervous on their first day on the job. I’m 20 years into my career and I still get first-day jitters. I think if I wasn’t nervous, there’d be a problem — it would be time for me to do something else.

I love teaching. I love all the starts; I love all the stops. Students always ask if I’m going to miss them when our time together is up. How can I miss them when another cohort of kids is coming up right behind them? Teaching challenges me, engages me. It makes me think. It makes me cringe. It makes me weep; it makes me scowl. It makes me wonder. Teaching makes me feel alive.

You see, for me, teaching is an art form. My lessons are like a well-choreographed dance routine; I always work from a set plan. The fact that everything is timed means the class has a certain rhythm to it. There’s a time for speed; there’s a time for chill. I have a classroom voice; I have a living room voice. The way I move and interact with my students is different than the way I interact with my own children (my students get fist pumps; my children get hugs). I always leave room and space for surprises. Like my columns, there’s plenty of meandering, but by the end of the term, by the end of the column, I always find a way to thematically wrap things up.

When a lesson plan doesn’t work, if a unit doesn’t go well, I feel like I have to respond. I’ve grown tired of teaching James Joyce’s short story, ‘Araby’ (Mostly, I’m just tired of every third kid quoting the last line of the story in their essay and on their exam: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger”— so did mine after writing that passage. I’ve replaced ‘Araby’ with Nabokov’s ‘Signs and Symbols’.

I’ve replaced the novel study with a personal writing unit. The kids read shorter pieces by Jesmyn Ward, Roxanne Gay, George Saunders, James Baldwin and others. Their major assessment piece for this unit is a personal essay, not a formal one. And, yes, there will always be space for Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s Richard III offers a timely warning about tyranny and complicity —a perfect book for our times. I have my students perform their Richard essay for the class (yup, I wrote that).  

This past semester was particularly challenging. My grade 12 University level students couldn’t write two paragraphs in seventy minutes. Their critical thinking wasn’t very critical. Their ability to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of course material, even in a multiple-choice format, was abhorrent. I was perplexed, confounded. I talked to a colleague about it. Turns out, he was experiencing the same thing. He told me: “The easier I make my tests, the worse their marks seem to get”.

And then I did the math.

This cohort of kids (b. 2006) spent the better part of their high school experience at home, learning via the hybrid model because of COVID-19. That means these kids spent most of their formative years pretending to be online, being taught by teachers dealing with their own stresses and anxieties. They wrote their first high school exams in Grade 11, less than a year before they wrote their grade 12 English exams with me. Learning loss is real.

I had me a moment.

A few months ago, The New York Times reported that we won’t see the impact of this learning loss until 10-15 years from now. When this cohort is 27, 28 years of age they’ll be competing with kids who had more time to recover from learning loss. In 2021, the World Bank reported that kids in school during the COVID crisis could lose close to ten trillion dollars in earnings over their lifetimes as a result of school closures.

So what do we do? What can I do?

While thinking about my response to what I saw and didn’t see last semester, I was reminded of a comment that a student made to me. She said that she was so impressed by how I, seemingly, heard everything kids said while we were together in class. I was so pleased to ‘hear’ that. I told her that I hear things because when I’m with them I am nowhere else. I’m not marking, prepping, planning, or on my phone. I’m present. I am in the room, in that space — with them. Maybe the most important thing we can do for this cohort (and all cohorts moving forward) is to make sure that we are fully present for these kids.

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