Archives for category: teaching

Here they are, our caterpillars all grown up.

Then letting them free:

Then freedom for a while…


1. I’m pretty sure SEVEN year old boys are the only ones who are ok with breakdancing to a Water Cycle rap song. If only you could have seen them helicopter to the refrain “evaporation, condensation, precipitation means rain, rain, rain, yah” you would get why I think grade 2’s the best.

2. Their sense of humor is intactly pure and right between the illogical giggling of 6 year olds and the dryish humor that begins to creep in at 9. We’ve had days when we can’t stop laughing the whole day because of something that happened in the morning.

3. They love books. So far in my years teaching my favorite grade, I haven’t met one who doesn’t love a good book.

I’ll leave it at 3 – though there are lots more of course…

mypicture.jpgThis is me. Wearing my turquoise hijab. Drawn by the girl with the bangs in her eyes (see post below).

Part my collection of hijab as interpreted by children (non-muslim), circa school year 2007-2008. I love the way she got the draping in front – of my heart, apparently. I also like the sidestep I’m doing and the way the skirt flounces out.

It’s the third week of school and I haven’t said a word about my class. I. Love. Them. All of them. Already. First of all, they are cuter than ever – each one with their own little mannerisms and characteristics.

There’s a boy who has a very grandiose, proper British sounding name with manners to match who makes formal pronouncements about things (“Ms. K, my grandpa gave me a kite which only real professionals can fly but with daily practice, I shall fly it in the park soon.” He sometimes wears stiffly pressed clothes – but, at the drop of a coin, he can also do whole sets of one-handed pushups (very seriously still, of course).

There’s a girl whose bangs falls completely over her eyes and who spends the carpet listening time twirling her hands as a mock conductor, her eyes closed and appears not to hear a word of class discussions but during independent work time, polishes off superb work which demonstrates total concentration.

There’s another boy who goes through my basket of read-aloud books during snack time and reads all the endings and then comes up to me periodically to reveal he knows all, laughing wildly. But then he still stays mum during read-alouds, riveted. I love him for that. So what if he has a desire to get closure before it’s time?

The class itself gets along amazingly. Usually classes start on the first day with some rules or agreements. But, I like to observe kids at their natural element to see which rules we need to go over. I was surprised to see that it was only on the fourth day of school we had to bring up an agreement about not laughing at others when they share their thoughts aloud.

Here’s the inventory of their interests so far: the Earth’s core, puppies, the color turquoise (I’ve been wearing turquoise hijabs 2 or 3 days a week just to make them smile), the forest behind our school and grasshoppers.

This morning I had a reminder of why I went into teaching in the first place. One of the children – who usually comes in with a bright smile, giggling – appeared tired and sad. I said good morning to her and she didn’t reply. After a few minutes, she came up to me and burst into tears. Her father had been in a car accident on the weekend – rushing home to her birthday party – and spent a night at the hospital. She told me she hadn’t slept well the whole weekend because “he was coming to my birthday and why did he have to rush for me?” To give her a hug and speak with her and reassure her and let her sit beside me at carpet time the whole morning and help her make a special card for her dad – that, to me, is what teaching is about. That and the cute kids.

“To laugh much; to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affections of children; to earn the approbation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to give one’s self; to leave the world a little better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm, and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived–this is to have succeeded.” Bessie Stanley, 1905

1. In early June I had the opportunity to do a phone interview with Kareem Salama for a freelance piece I was writing (I’ve pitched it to a publication since then so keep me in your duas) and he told me about some of the songs on his second album, This Life of Mine. You can hear 2 of them, This Life of Mine and Generous Peace, on his website From what I’ve heard – both from Kareem and from the songs – I’m getting a feeling this new album is going to go far, insha’Allah (God willing).

You can also read a great review of it at Hahmed’s blog. (I can’t wait to get the album even if it’s just to read the lyrics.)

kareem_cover.jpg I’m certain that many Canadians haven’t heard Kareem Salama’s music yet. It seems when I or friends mention him in terms of new “Muslim” music, we draw blanks (so we usually do a LOT of advertising – my sister even played it at a community picnic and then had an extremely lengthy discussion/debate with a brother who was saying that it was NOT Muslim music. I wish I had been there – I would have loved to hear what the definition of “Muslim” music was.) Just yesterday, a non-Muslim friend heard his first CD, Generous Peace, while in my car and though I’ve known her for almost ten years, suddenly revealed that she had always looooved country music and this was up there. I promised her a CD or 2 from the ISNA convention just for revealing such a secret.

2. There’s a whole bunch of cute 7 year olds wondering what life is going to be like (after two weeks) for the next ten months. I’ve met most of my incoming class and I’m truly excited – most of them already have well-developed personalities. A big part of a teacher’s job is planning but my detailed plans always fly out the window when I tap into what my latest class is absorbed by. So, while I, like all students and teachers out there, cringe at all the Back to School hoopla, the cringe turns into a smile when I think of the kids.

3. A good friend of mine is leaving Canada with her husband and young daughter for a university teaching opportunity abroad (young, adventurous and smart!) Today we had a get together to say good-bye to her. I’ve known her since I was 6 and though she’s only slightly older than me, I’ve always looked up to her as an older sister – and I don’t think I’m the only one. She’s thoroughly kind, always ready to help anyone and everyone, cheerful, so political aware (she’s going to be teaching international relations) and an independent spirit. I’m going to miss you and I’ll never forget the time you came to visit me in my colorful home in Ottawa, heart-broken and the time I came to visit you at that colorful Chinese restaurant, heart-broken. And the summers we spent riding our bikes all over High Park. And…

2 more days until I stride through the finish line and officially enter summer holidays and one of the perks of being a teacher: two months off of work. What have I got planned? No vacations unlike last summer’s flurried trips abroad. Just a weekend near a lake up north and then re-discovering T.O. – especially taking the ferry to the islands (the quieter ones are the better ones). Water and trees and sketchbooks and sand.

The students’ official last half-day is tomorrow so I gave them their presents today. Each year, the year-end present I give my students commemorates our year together. This year, it was hard to choose something – the class was simply bursting with so many interests, curiosities, questions and we went all over the place with them. We got excited about chess, butterflies, newspapers, carnivores, rocks, gorillas, Vincent Van Gogh and tumbleweeds (this one was a weird obsession – after the day we read a story which included a lone tumbleweed and I told them that tumbleweeds are more likely found in arid areas (I meant the specific plant), suddenly the kids were discovering them every day rolling around in the playground; today when we cleaned up, I counted too many specimens (some extremely large) in our science center).

So I got them musical skipping ropes. Because I’m so excited I got them excited about skipping (EVEN the boys – which I consider a major feat). I’m going to sound like a “when-I-was-their-age-I-walked-four-miles-to-school” adult, but it really furrows my brows when I see the amount of children who find recess boring. A lot of kids really, really don’t know how to entertain themselves with playground games. Last year, I started a club just to teach playground games to student leaders who were then given the mission to teach others. Weird, isn’t it?

This year, I entered the classroom in September armed with obscure videos from the 80’s I had ordered through the public library. They showed kids with mullets and feathered hair doing awesome tricks with their skipping ropes at some New York skipping Olympics. The students watched in fascination – both the tricks and the hairdos – and since then I got them hooked on skipping. As there was only a few boys featured in the videos, I had to throw in the information that boxers skip to get the boys on board. Now they skip as furiously as the girls – albeit with manly, boxer-ish scowls of concentration on their faces.

As I skip to the finish line, I’m going to really miss my class; they were truly a great bunch of kids. But I think I say that every year.

Strangely, our class visit to the zoo ended up being spiritual. There we were, in front of the gorilla exhibit, staring straight into the sorrowful face of the head honcho of the fam with me thinking the same thing I’ve thought every year that I’ve taken a grade 2 class to the zoo (4 years) – I don’t think I want to come again next year and marvel at these poor creatures staring blankly back at me – when a small voice piped up from beside me and invaded my private thoughts: “I think…I think it’s better if we went to the jungle and saw these animals there…then they would be happy and we would be happy. I’m not happy seeing them not-happy.”

It was one of my students, one of the lively, rambunctious ones that I’d especially selected to tour the zoo in my group (with the parent volunteers splitting up the less “explorative” rest of the class).

The other students heard this girl’s opinion and a strange silence fell on us. It seemed to be just us 7 and the old male gorilla with his sonorous face and slow-blinking eyes. Why do primates staring full into your face compel such bouts of conscience in us humans?

After that, the students couldn’t stop talking about the feelings of the animals. I was toting around not only gorilla-whisperers, but also elephant-whisperers, camel-whisperers, polar bear-whisperers and even red-tailed green rat snake-whisperers. At one point we went into a mock ranger cabin on the “African Savannah” and those students who were Buddhist and Hindu felt compelled to tell the presenter about some of their views on the sacred treatment of animals. One student gently touched a piece of zebra skin and asked how it had died. I could tell the presenter was a bit flustered. But then she came around and moved about the cabin gamely pointing out all the things that were fake (“See this lion skull? Guess what? It’s NOT real! We made it here at the zoo!” “Well, what about this tusk? Is that real?” “Well, er, yes but…we’re sure the elephant died of an illness…We’re the Zoo, we LOVE animals.”) I’m sure she was relieved when we moved on and the next group of bouncy, less-whispery kids bounded in.

The whole trip was obviously not like that – and as usual, the very same things that happen every year inevitably happened. In front of the spectacular view of the giraffes languidly moving across the field or the lion yawning majestically, the kids energetically pointed out “LOOK! An ant! An ANT!” or “Ms. K! IT’s A PIGEON! A PIGEON EVERYONE!” Every year without fail this happens in front of the most exotic animal exhibits.

But then…as we sat down in a quiet spot under a tree to eat our lunches, I pulled out my translation of Shaykh Al-Amin Ali Mazrui’s collection of hadith The Content of Character. I thought all the kids were involved in chatting with each other but a few of them drew near to me to ask what I was reading. I explained that it was something from my religion. What? they asked. It was about goodness, I explained. The gorilla-whisperer noticed the Arabic on the pages and wanted to hear me read it. So under the tree, amidst all the animal whisperers, I read in a lulling language which they did not understand but seemed content to just listen to without explanation. I read the meaning in my head: Those who show mercy have God’s mercy shown to them. Have mercy to those here on earth, and the One there in Heaven will have mercy on you.

Yesterday was like a heart rate chart. Up and down and up and down.

It officially began with a down when I snipped my finger (the one next door to pinkie) while I was cutting sticky notes for the students to use during their social studies projects to pretend they were real researchers (you know, walking around with books with yellow strips sticking out all over the place with their jotted notes on them). The bleeding wouldn’t stop and had the kids all tizzied up. Some had their mouths open in fascination (the scientists), several were running to tell others (the reporters), a couple had rushed to the office to get bandages (the doctors), one had brought tissue over to press the wound (the paramedic), two were reassuring me and informing each other they had experienced such cuts before and survived (the Oprahs), one was examining the scissor’s sharpness (the forensic investigator), a couple were muttering darkly about its sharpness (the unionists), one special guy was announcing the fact that there was such sharp scissors around a school wasn’t good at all (the lawyer), three were asking me if I was ok over and over (the therapists), four were still working hard on their projects after shooting a single steely glance at all the commotion (the CEOs) and a handful, a precious handful, were patting my arm with tears in their eyes (the gems). And all I was thinking was… a cut on my newly empty ring finger? I can get a poem out of the tragic irony.

Such is the mind of (the writer).

Today’s Reading Group: The yellow group (four seven year-old boys)

Their group’s reading focus: The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch

A good teacher excites students by engaging them in conversation about the topic of the book pre-reading (book unseen) so this gleeful teacher set about conversing…

(Setting: round reading table. Other students are reading silently.)

Me: So, boys, let’s talk about… princesses!

(Boys look at each other sheepishly.)

Me: What do you know about princesses?

Boy 1 (the original let’s-throw-the-ol’-football-around boy type, holding his face stretched to keep it from dissolving into howling laughter): I dunno anything about princesses.

Boy 2 (confident, leader type): Princesses are locked up in a castle waiting for their true love to come to rescue them.

Boy 3 (catching on): They wear high heels.

Boy 4 (wrinkling nose but eager to give his 2-cents): They like to wear high heels.

Boy 2 (trying to set higher tone): Princesses will only marry their own type, like a prince.

Boy 3: Some princesses have to kiss a beast.

Boy 4: or an ugly thing like a frog.

Boy 1 (face still stretched into submission): They always dance.

Boy 2 (working his way to Harvard): Sometimes witches try to stop princesses from their true love but they still get their true love. And sometimes witches turn themselves into a princess but a prince will only marry a TRUE princess.

Me: What do they look like?

Boys (popcorning [teacher term] answers): lots of make-up, shiny shoes, wear lots of jewelery (Boy 3 emphatically corrects: Not ALL princesses wear LOTS of jewelery. They have lots but some use SOME of it), have curly hair (light brown, blond), earrings, small, tall.

Me: Can princesses do anything?

Boys (popcorning): They can become a queen, turn into a witch/frog, can kiss people to turn them normal, can marry handsome princes, have different hairstyles.

Boy 2 (now working his way to Oxford): A king is NOTHING without a queen.

Boy 3 (still emphatic about things, next stop: Law School): But we’re not talking about queens here.

(Now they’re really getting into the topic.)

Me: So what’s the difference between regular girls and princesses?

Boy 1 (face relaxed now, amazed topic is so interesting): Well, they don’t wear crowns. Regular girls don’t wear them.

Boy 4: They don’t wear high heels.

Boy 3: Actually they do wear high heels. My mom has high heels.

Boy 4: Well, they don’t wear sparkly ones.

Boy 3: My mom does.

Boy 4: Okay, my mom does too.

Boy 2: But they don’t wear sparkly, shiny, magic ones like princesses do.

Me: What do regular girls do that princesses don’t?

(Now all “regular” girls in the class have their ears tilted this way, one eye on the boys.)

Boy 2: Regular girls can do more.

Boy 1: Like they punch!

Boy 3: Yeah, they punch! And they karate chop like this (does a pretend karate chop in the air and then rubs his eye).

(Other 3 boys rub their own eye/arm/leg in memory of encounters with “regular” girls.)

Boy 4: They can drive.

Boy 1: They can climb stairs.

Boy 2: So they’re not stuck in a locked tower because they can climb out.

Me: So who do you like better?

All 4 Boys together and emphatically: Regular girls!

Boy 2: Of course.

(“Regular” girls smile at each other.)

Woke up at 5:21 a.m. to blaring news on radio alarm clock (which says 6:01 but which my gifted math brain figures out to really mean 5:14 – and which it figures out each and every time no matter how many times I play tricks on it by randomly putting the clock ahead by x minutes; the frequent mentioning of the time by the radio news helps too),

hit the snooze button but first put closet light on (makes it harder to fall into deep sleep – try it),

slept fitfully, woke up next at 5:28 a.m., hit the snooze again but first put washroom light on – really, really hard to fall into R.E.M. sleep),

lay with eyes open, pushed the snooze again 4 more times (great morning exercise), (if my dad is reading this I know he’s frowning and saying to my mom see, here’s the proof, I knew she gets no sleep – dad, don’t you have to be working on your khutbah?)

finally woke up at 5:56 from the exhaustion of listening to scraps of news and wondering what is going on in this world,

woke up son, daughter, put tea kettle on, showered, prayed Fajr, changed into super warm clothes (have outdoor recess duty), packed lunches (sandwiches and fruit for kids – nada for me, no time; aw shucks, it’ll have to be my favorite falafel place), checked school bags, made breakfast, at 7:15 took children to my parents for their Islamic classes before school (they attend an interesting Islamic school – that’s why it’s important they have Islamic classes before they go), drove to the school I teach at (public school – which begins really early for some odd reason), stayed in car finishing my morning duas,

went in, checked mailbox, picked up attendance folder, spoke to a supply teacher who works at the Rogers Center during baseball season to see if he can give me tips on best package plans for tickets, adjusted cute schedule cards for day on white board (blackboards are no-nos, instead the new schools in our school board single-handedly support the dry erase marker industry), turned classroom helper wheels (so today, yesterday’s chair stacker is the board cleaner, yay!), rotated literacy center cards (so today, yesterday’s reading group gets to record their visualizations, yay! – the kids do really get this excited. seriously), went over daily plans which sits on top of literally 6 inches of books and papers on my desk (but ask me to find a certain important piece of information and I’ll whip it out from the exact place I remember putting it – definitely method to the madness), greeted first students entering with a smile and … was there with/for them for the rest of the school day – it’s called teaching but it’s every job you can imagine rolled into one:

today, I played nurse (splinter), psychologist (student crossing boundaries with others repeatedly), U.N. peacekeeper (2 students misunderstand each other’s communications to the point of tears, frustration and calls for escalation by allies), engineer (materials and weight suitable for building load-carrying boat), matchmaker (student bought in a tiny rose plant as a gift for me – I saw our old classroom creeper plant, the lonely Yugi, which some of the girls had adorned with hearts on valentine’s day and immediately matched them – the kids voted Rosey as our new plant’s name; nice couple that Yugi and Rosey), talent scout (encouraged students from another class I overheard singing to try out for the talent show – even though they were singing Hilary Duff), coach (jump rope), chess master (grade 2 geniuses are scary), lay-out designer (put up hall display of student work taking into consideration symmetry, balance and content), web expert (parent request for list of literacy based websites) and on and on till I am not me but everything to everyone immediately as they need me to be… but I’m not complaining – it’s just the sort of career for someone who’s interested in too many things…

in between, I find 3 chestnuts in my desk drawer for snack, read a disturbing e-mailed article about a new Canadian government initiative backing an Israeli lobby group, grab a falafel for lunch, pray Dhuhr and Asr in my classroom, book tickets with a colleague for a Red Sox/Jays game in May as a surprise for my son, laugh with colleagues about pregnancy, little mosque, messy desks, safety, etc…

after school, my kids are visiting their dad today so I stay and work on lesson plans for next week and report cards in order to get a free weekend to…get the washing machine fixed and catch up on laundry and ironing, yay! and to check out a new private school for my kids and, well, it will also free up time to meet a good friend for sushi downtown on Saturday (only cooked rolls for me – is that still sushi?) so I work like mad – no dinner, Maghrib in the computer room – until it’s time to pick up the kids from their art classes (imperative classes as art is an after thought at their current school),

along the way, I get a cappuccino (liquid dinner; if my mom is reading this I know she’s frowning and saying to my dad see, here’s the proof, I knew she wasn’t going to come home and cook biryani for herself tonight – mom, don’t you have to be working on…sitting down? ) and hot chocolate for the kids, meet them at their classes and ooh and aah their work (son: sketch of basketball player, daughter: giraffe puppet and Chinese New Year drawing); on drive home, discuss Chinese astrology with my daughter who informs me that she is a snake according to the zodiac but which my son, who is a renaissance man, corrects by pointing out that being born in 2000, she is a dragon,

we discuss the importance of learning about other cultures, religions, traditions and respecting them but not letting them impress upon our hearts if they contradict our beliefs and I’m glad my kids go to these classes outside of Islamic school where they can learn about the world and how to share in it while standing strong with their identities as Muslims,

finally, we get home to our condo. at 8:30 p.m. – past my daughter’s bedtime (but for art, we make exceptions), kids drink hot chocolate, shower, pyjamas, pray Isha, drink milk, brush teeth,

practice words for her Friday spelling test by daughter’s bedside, teach her how to draw stars, by-pass bedtime story but not night duas, she drops to sleep, I’m sure dreaming of dragons drinking hot chocolate,

son finishes left-over homework, pretends to sleep but really reads past his bedtime until I shut off the lights with a kiss,

I make lunches, lay out clothes for next day, prep. breakfast, call my parents, check e-mails, upkeep a website my sister and I launched in December, write this blog entry.

Still to do: pray Isha, finish The Language of Baklava (I’m riveted by it and will read past my bedtime as I’m on the last 2 chapters) and read Qur’an. Tomorrow? TGIF.

I don’t particular remember anything about being seven years old except that there was a girl who used to step on my toes every time I lined up to go to recess. On purpose because I remember her also saying snide things while she did it – like what kind of shampoo do you use? Cuz I’ve never smelled anything like your hair – ever. I went home the first time she said it and struggled to read the name of the shampoo at the edge of the tub. Clairol’s Herbal Essence was my mom’s shampoo of choice for everyone in my family (shameless plug for Clairol – except for that brief period in grade 2 when I stopped due to Miss Toe-Stepper, I’ve used it almost continuously for most of my hair’s life). The next day, while I stood under her grinding shoe, I duly reported that I used Herbal Essence shampoo. She snickered and said no one even knew that shampoo. So grade 2 was sort of a blur of sore toes, herbal essence-less hair and learning that the world was able to produce really rude seven year-olds.

Now, I teach grade 2. A class full of seven year olds. I make sure not-a-one is stepping on people’s toes and causing late night reading sessions at the side of the tub. Or at least I try to. It’s a weighty responsibility. Making sure that this batch of seven year olds leave the class in June with empathy for others – that’s my one goal. I figure if I tried my best to do that and teach them to love trees, see all living things (including the spider in the corner of the classroom) as going home to their moms and dads at night and, oh, one more thing, if I teach them to READ, I’ve helped in a tiny way to make the world a slightly better place…

When I was seventeen, I met a seven year old I will never forget. She was the sister of a friend I met at camp. She had come along with her parents who were working there. She was smart, full of confidence, a spark if there ever was one. I had always loved children and included her whenever we “grown-ups” were doing things. She could hold a conversation with a teen and laugh with the rest of us. On the last day everyone was exchanging addresses and she stood a little off to the side watching us. I went over and we exchanged addresses – her with all the seriousness of a young woman. Soon after I got back home, I received her letter full of bubbly information about her school, friends and family. Procrastinator that I was, I set the letter in my to do pile. Ashamedly, I finally responded to the letter a couple of months later – a whopper of a letter full of pages, pictures, riddles etc. I mailed it on Friday. She died that weekend in a car crash.

God gave her seven years on earth and in that seven, she had learned enough to display the self-possession and intelligence of more than double that many years.

My daughter turns seven next year. She is bubbly, smart, funny and insightful. She loves trees, empathizes with spiders even if she’s sometimes scared of them (depends on the day), draws intricate pictures that tell more than a thousand words and always has rocks in her pockets that she just had to pick up because they were so beautiful. And while I can see her naively contemplating a snide question about what kind of shampoo she uses, I could never see her allowing anyone to step on her toes everyday before recess.

I’ve told her that story too many times.

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