Clay It Forward is the creation of Sandra Hodge an English teacher who for over 30 years has used her communication and literacy skills combined with the arts as a portal to engage learning. Clay it Forward was founded almost two years ago and is offered at over 25 events in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and area.
In the Beginning…
My first memories of “teaching” are with my sister. We were playing school, and she, although younger, was the leader: “You be the teacher, and I’ll be the girl who does this.” (twirling her hair in ringlets).
A shy and awkward thing, too tall, too skinny, bespectacled, soft-spoken, artsy and bookish, I was asked by teachers to stay in at recess to help students with missed spelling dictations.
I loved everything about the Nelson Spelling in Language Arts Series that was used when I was an elementary student in the late sixties and early seventies. They drilled the five aspects: phonics, spelling, vocabulary, grammar and writing. The hard-covered, modest books were a nice, humble size. The mostly white – ish top half cover was grimy with years’ of kids’ lead smudged finger prints all over. The bottom part of the book was always a different colour: a purplish blue – indigo? stands out in my mind: grade 7 perhaps (I remember being disappointed the entire year of the brown…grade 5?). Once cracked, the book opened to each new, but familiar lesson. Down the left of the page, in a faded version of whatever colour was on the front, was a one inch strip on which “the list words” appeared. Maybe 18 or 20 of them. Every 6 lessons was a “review” – and there were a whack.
Each regular lesson had the same predictable rhythm: Write each word three times each. Break them into syllables. Use them in a sentence. Then, do the activities in the lesson. Part A usually had some phonics rule that applied to a few of the list words: “i before e, except after c, or when sounding like a as in neighbour and weigh” … Part B, if I recall, was an extension of this activity. “Find three list words that end in “tle”…and so on….Most people found part E the torment: writing….”use at least 10 of the list words in a composition about…..”
I was in heaven with all those words and rules and stories.
Later, in highschool, the teachers would sit me beside the hooligans – hoping for a miracle of calming influence – and a passing grade.
The hooligans I got to know didn’t much like spelling, or writing, or reading, or periodic tables…or much of anything to do with school – except the parts that repelled me: lunch and spare and the smoking area – or the gym and the football field.
But they had very interesting stories, living in worlds I knew little about. And since I wasn’t a threat to the hooligan girls or a distraction to the hooligan boys, I got to know them all as just people with little of the drama that marks most highschool navigations.
I went on to become a tutor for summer employment, took a degree in English literature and sociology, and accepted my first teaching position in Sault Ste. Marie in 1986, age 23.
My employer, Craig Reading & Educational Services, was a private enterprise offering academic upgrading to adults in transition. Our students were mostly WSIB clients, injured workers from the steel plant and paper mill, most of whom had gone to work directly out of highschool and now needed refresher courses prior to returning to college and finding a new livelihood. They weren’t too keen on school either.
They had great stories.
At the height of the program, before adult upgrading was taken over by the Ministry of Colleges, Training and Universities in the early 90’s, I was one of three English teachers; one math teacher completed the staff to about 40 learners who attended – half of them in the morning, the other half in the afternoon.
The “school” was located above Morgan’s Clothing, in Sault Ste. Marie, at the corner of Goulais Avenue and Second Line. My first apartment was right behind it. I could be at work in three minutes.
The students called it “Morgan High” and it was mostly a gas.
Our “curriculum” operated similarly to the Nelson Spellers from my youth. We had recipe cards for each student – each new card stapled to the one before, in alternating top corners as the days and weeks and months passed by, so, in time, the cards could be stretched out as great accordions of accomplishment while the students reprogrammed their brains and faced the music of their new, uncertain futures.
On the back of the first card, there again, were those “five aspects”: spelling, phonics, vocabulary, language and grammar, and writing – comprehension rounded out the mix. Titles of the books, assigned to the learners’ competency levels, were written under each heading.
Most of these students were guys – men with families and homes, usually “camps” too, and vehicles and comfortable, predictable lives. And they, as it turns out, were to be at the vanguard of a mass of workers sent back to school, not because they were injured and could no longer do their jobs, but because they were redundant and their jobs disappeared during the downsizing and corporate efficiencies of the1990’s.
Adult education, academic upgrading, retraining, second career, academic and career entrance – whatever ACE name one called that rose – became a cash cow for school boards and community colleges across the province and most of the country.
Our little program shut down.
I did some private tutoring, took up pottery, taught ESL and went to teacher’s college, so I could be a “real” teacher and get a “real” job. But anyone who knows me will tell you I’m hardly based in reality and vice versa.
If Facebook had been around when I got my first job teaching “critical thinking” at the local community college, my “friends” would not just be “lol”, they’d be “lmfao” hysterically. But I was domesticated now, with a mortgage, a spouse, two step-children, a baby girl, and a Malemute.
After over 15 years of contract work at the college, (now teaching the children of many of those first injured workers I’d met when I was fresh out of university), I was free in the most bizarre sort of way: the mortgage was paid, I was uncoupled, our youngest -another girl- was almost a teenager, and I was alive after emergency colon cancer surgery.
With no job security or work benefits at the college, I healed for a year on EI and took a job in absolute irony at a incoming call centre answering emergency requests for roadside assistance.
I don’t drive; I have no sense of direction and have no sense of urgency. But I can listen and type at the same time, I love hearing people’s stories, I’m professional and empathetic and try “on my honour, to do my best, to do my duty, to God, the Queen and my country, to help other people at all times and to obey the Guide’s law.”
But this job – the only (barely-over) minimum-wage- job I’d had since highschool – was also the only one I’d had of its kind in my life – permanent, full-time with benefits.
And it was humbling. I wasn’t very good at first. I was terrible. I was slow and overwhelmed – I felt stressed and inadequate. I had to stay an extra week in the training class. I cried in the bathroom, humiliated; but at least I wasn’t going to be fired. I knew for the first time what all those students for all those years had felt like. Totally out of my league.
The students were my co-workers now. Some were my supervisors. It was a bit awkward.
I knew their lives intimately; I’d read their essays for years; they were studying part-time. Some, astonishingly, were studying full-time. The company would pay local tuition for full-time students working full-time hours. Many had children. Others had graduated, but couldn’t find work in their field, but had a mountain of student debt to repay, and cars to maintain, and dreams to try to keep flickering. Others were creatives: writers, musicians, actors, graphic novelists – clay artists. Feeding the muse with the day job.
But when the headset goes on and the lines open, it’s all about the calls; if you can get your chops – which I finally, proudly did – it’s a whole different kind of level playing field.
And the stories! From the customers needing jump starts, tows, tire-changes, winch outs, fuel deliveries, and the service providers we send out to help them; all the crazy predicaments we get ourselves into when we take that leap of faith and get into a car and drive…in a snowstorm…with no gas…and a Thanksgiving turkey…and children…in a strange city…with no insurance…and no money….there but for the grace….
I miss aspects of that job way more than I miss traditional teaching. It was so satisfying to know that after about three minutes, I could solve a person’s problem, almost like magic; the system was in place and the car was towed – usually to the right place. On the other hand, I hated having to grade papers deeming one person an A+, another a C or an F. I hated being party to that humiliation and shame. I love words and language: I care about commas enormously, but I can live with myself much easier when I can show people how to do something to make their work better, rather than deducting half a point for a misplaced modifier and a full point for a run-on sentence and a sentence fragment.
At the call centre, as with the cancer, I entered an unfamiliar world that I had no bearings in…. but it’s possible to get your chops in the strangest of places…with the most interesting of travelers along the way..and hearing the stories they will tell…
I’ve forgotten the name and the author of an essay we used to teach in ENG 110, but I remember the message: the point of an education, it argued, was not so much for the skills you would attain, or the employment doors that may – or may not – open (both of those are good points), but the main point was that, upon completion, you would know that you could finish something difficult. And having that faith in yourself would get you through a bunch of other tough things you’d be sure to encounter later on.
I remember one young woman at the call centre training class: while I was furtively taking pages and pages of notes like a court reporter, she was relaxed, funny, quick; she caught on to everything first; aced all the quizzes, but froze when we hit the floor to take live calls. Those first days were terrifying for us all, but she couldn’t get over it. She couldn’t let herself do it, and that will be one of the persistent stories she’ll go through her life telling herself.
To that end, I submit my own clay curriculum with the same familiar aspects – the words, the phonics, the grammar and language – based always on the stories I encounter in my books, on my favourite radio shows or from the people I encounter.
I hope you find the delight and the comfort in your own way of learning for the rest of your life, listening to others’ stories, and telling your own – and rewriting them and changing them up or changing the endings if they’re no longer serving you. I hope you listen to your muse when she’s dancing on your brain, and maybe trying your own hand at turning mud to magic through fire and word or joining us in safe, soft places to start hard conversations.
See you on the other side of the fire!