Monthly Archives: August 2014

For future princes and princesses, everywhere…

As we prepare:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless seas.”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery The Little Prince

For WHEN: ID-100237304- books and grad hat

To our future makers, doers, thinkers, and believers.

For the upcoming 2014-2015 School year

Dreams DO come true

Lessons recalled-

She stood framed in the double doors, almost inside the school, and without a fog horn her voice carried across the prairie cold exhorting all of us to think – only those weren’t the words spoken. No, it was a routine fire drill, and we were being reminded about how important filing quietly out the prescribed doors and lining up with our classmates was to our personal health and safety. A lesson we were to practice several times throughout elementary school, and it seemed more often during the cold winter months. This was old school; no preparation, no jackets, no boots and scarves in advance of a drill, just the sudden ringing, and the ensuing hush as we silently filed into the cold. And it was cold.

We were a very receptive audience even if we were prone to muttering under our breath that she, the principal, may be warm, while we were expected to shiver silently and endure the upcoming speech. Some principals may have considered the school auditorium the best place for lectures. Not this one. The school auditorium was where we as children performed, reciting poems, acting in skits, participating in Spelling Bees; the school auditorium doubled as a gym, our place to dodge balls, our place to challenge each other in a friendly game, our place to learn to become a little bit better coordinated physically when attempting to dance to a rhythm, or move across a balance beam. But the Fire Drills belonged to our principal. Here straddling the doors her words carried weight- no one would act up and risk spending an extra few minutes of time in the chill. One practice was discovered quickly- if we interrupted the lecture, she began at the beginning- our choice then to listen, truly listen to why the message was so important.

And what we discovered over time, was a little bit of the personal history of the speaker. Convinced that children could learn to question the world around them, she posed questions to us. She had personal family who had gone off to fight in WW11, and she believed passionately that not only were we the future, but that we would have to tackle an enemy at one point or another, and be prepared. So she taught us to practice patience, to think about actions that might be hurtful, to above all attempt to make sense of things that at times might not make sense. And to care.

While we continued to mutter under our breath we did absorb the lectures, and began to recognize a pattern to the readings and plays and work we were expected to memorize- that’s right – memorize- not to be shared once and then forgotten, but to form a space somewhere inside our heads, to be recalled as needed into our future lives, to supply some type of meaning as we changed and grew and were better able to understand the depth of the words; to have experiences and to be startled to discover that we had already been advised that such experiences might happen. Nowadays, and as an adult I am able to label the school “progressive”, to recognize within the practice a unique combination of humanistic principles; a public school with a principal who took to heart the planning of curriculum around a simple theme- whole school, whole child- literacy having at its heart the means to create change.

We learned that a war, any war, is devastating.
We learned that people came in all shapes and sizes, all backgrounds and colours.
We learned that people had a variety of abilities, and if we were blessed with strength in one area, it was our duty to share this strength, and help another, while learning what another could bring to balance us. And we learned this while standing in the very cold.

No one was ever harshly disciplined; no cruel and unusual punishments were meted out.

There was no strap, no corner to be placed in, no writing lines or detentions. But always, there was a question- simple, straight forward and not done up in fancy script or cutesy style adorning a classroom or the halls. “Does it make sense?” “Does it make sense?”
A wonderfully broad question, capable of encompassing almost any action-
“Does it make sense to run in the hall and possibly trip, fall and get hurt?”
“Does it make sense to not ask for help if the teacher is in the room to provide just this service?”
“Does it make sense to be mean to a classmate when you don’t know what tomorrow may bring and whose help you may require?”
“Does it make sense to cheat on a test rather than finding out what you are capable of doing?”
“Does it make sense to laugh if a classmate doesn’t know the answer- to pretend to be perfect when no one could be?”
“Does it make sense?”

And yet…so much of life doesn’t make sense. What then was she so earnest about teaching all of us? We would suggest to one another that standing in the chilly weather wasn’t making sense, and having to endure another lecture was making no sense at all. But we listened. And with each story we learned to question a little more deeply what our roles could be and how we might improve the general atmosphere of the school; we were the school- this much was drilled home. It wasn’t the playground or the gym, the classrooms or even the teachers; it was us. “You get out of it what you put into it”- she never said that- she said “ask why?”; “ask if anyone will or could be hurt”: state “why not” then review your thinking. And if necessary, “do nothing at all”. Imagine – an instruction to “do nothing”- but the real key to that last injunction was ‘if necessary”.

As an educator I think how difficult it can be to truly learn the value of the last instruction- and recognize that not only were we as children receiving advice, so were the teachers who stood in the cold with us. Sometimes the best way we can help a student is to let the student attempt an action without interference- the student must come to own the experience, to evaluate it, to make “sense” of it, to change and grow. We educators are like the training wheels on a bike; there to help our students acquire their own ability to balance, but once steady and moving forward, to be removed, and stand aside, and cheer.

A tribute and a response: here is to The Crazy Ones

In the wake of the shocking and sad news about actor Robin Williams, the discussion has turned to the hope that bringing awareness to the issues surrounding depression could prevent such happenings.  As someone who very much was disappointed to learn that the recent show-in which Mr Williams starred- The Crazy Ones* -had not been picked up for a second season, it seems fitting to note that the character Robin Williams  played in this TV comedy was a recovering addict- from the potentially lethal combination of drugs and alcohol.  Somehow the connection between addiction and alcohol and drug abuse (prescription or otherwise) and depression must be made.  And we must move beyond chicken and egg theories ( which came first ) to what may exacerbate rather than relieve an individual.

I currently live in Toronto, a city from where the exploits of the current mayor ( drugs, alcohol) have gone global, be they featured on a Jimmey Kimmel show or simply bandied about on various forms of social media.  Of great concern as an educator is whether enough young people see the diseases for what they are; addiction should not be glorified in any shape or form.  Why anyone turns to alcohol or drugs is a moot point- the options to obtain both merely a matter of cash.  And many young people have access to cash, and see images of exciting lifestyles as obtainable with a little extra help from the right pill, or boozy concoction.  This is one of the reasons I wished that more people would have noticed Robin Williams’ recent show- the show never made light of the addictions, instead it continuously brought home the message that while being an addict the character had manged to accomplish a number of things- growing the ad agency for example, the focus per episode was on the recovered/recovering aspects of the person, attempting stronger relationships with his staff, his family, and his new clients.  It is therefore even more sad that the show lacked the strong following it deserved; do we not appreciate the example of strength the Robin Williams character displayed? 

I for one intend to dispel some myths when teaching this year-and highlight instead that: not all writers are drunks (legend of the Hemingway character as example) , not all comics are depressive (Robin Williams will now be seen as suggestive), not all musicians burn out young (Michael Jackson) not all successful famous people die untimely deaths (Marilyn Monroe)…

And I will ask students to find their own examples of individuals who surpass the odds- not merely the typical SAT type board exam question dealing with adversity, but moving beyond this to the question of where myths and or urban legends come from and what positive and negative effects such urban myths/legends may hold.  I doubt we will solve the problems in these classes, but at the very least we will be questioning culture and attitude towards both public displays of excess and private suffering.  It is not about rearing a tea totaling generation, it is about wanting the future generation to recognize that no one starts out as an addict- and to encourage students to realize that more and more society is trying to focus on issues that deal with mental as well as physical health- not from the quick fix of a pill or a drink- but from the long term stabilizing aspects of community, participation and education.  Together; people getting stronger. 


*For more about the show and its characters see the tribute offered by Sarah Michelle Geller who played his daughter in The Crazy Ones

Challenging the Bully

While at work at a company recently I had the following experience; arriving on a Monday to pick up messages I heard the taped conversation on the voice mail, detailing a divorce proceeding. This detailing, that is the reading of the divorce papers, was being done in a male voice – done deliberately- to what purpose- I do not know. Yes I am divorced and have been for a number of years. Should I have been asked to listen to someone reading such personal information? The message had been left on the machine DELIBERATELY – harassment is a funny thing- it is often done under the table instead of what one usually reads about – the in your face comments, the rude snubs- Oh no- real harassment is the more ugly, subtle kind. For the record, I did not delete the message -I left it there, wondering what further games might occur.

Now as an educator I am on the lookout for bullying amongst students. And one thing I have learned over the years is that children will bounce back from the open threats; it is the continuous wearing of one down that hurts the most. I am going to be very clear here- open threats allow an educator to observe the bullying and to intervene; the student doesn’t need to tattle, and risk further trouble. But under the table actions, the kind that are meant to do one thing only- to instill fear, discomfort, worry, stress; all the statements about a bully being a coward etc., will do little to alleviate worry if the bullies’ actions can’t be curtailed, and if the bully can’t be snuffed out.

At this same position I arrived another Monday to hear the following message, this time in a female voice: “Well, slightly drawled, she is very creative, but she is not a manager”- again the portion of a recorded conversation, left on purpose for me to hear. I was going to write overhear, but that would be inaccurate as picking up and sharing messages was part of that particular job description. Now there is perhaps a backwards compliment in there, if indeed leaders are depicted as creative, and managers as drones. I have never been accused of being a drone. But as an adult, I once again resented receiving a message second hand- as bullying goes, it is not as obscene as the type I have witnessed on a playground, but it is still bullying. Face to face communication is a statement to a person, that the person is valued as a human being. Which is why I always appreciated a New York attitude that was once explained to me as: “people may agree to dislike each other but would still do business with each other.” Here in Toronto, the subtle attacks are unnerving, demoralizing, and much harder to eradicate.*

A colleague has a blog and asked for comments regarding bullying – sparking both the memory and the effort I have always made to not be a bystander. I recognize that each of us has a particular upbringing; mine was wrapped up in the need to care for others. This translated early into using an ability to speak, to speak on behalf of another if requested to. We as educators are tasked with the goal of encouraging students to recognize bullying when they see it and to create the environment in which it will be possible to ask for help to curtail the bully – to create the safest environment possible, wherein each student feels that the classroom, the school grounds, and the topics of conversation which will take place, are going to be encouraging, welcoming, and both open and fair. It is not an easy position, and at times, subtlety is called for in a learning environment- but not when it comes to preventing bullying. Bullying must be challenged head on, discussed, and as many outlets and options be made clear to as many students as possible if the school environment is to do its job and truly offer a safe and accepting learning space. Good luck to all teachers preparing just such environments in anticipation of the 2014-2015 year.

• I typed it as I had felt it; and mean no disrespect to my “adopted” city; the place where my children are pleased to call “home”. I also recognize that cultural expectations may come into play- but regardless, bullying has no place in either the workplace or the school.

Websites you may enjoy: lots to share here

weaving words into feelings

Maya Angelou had an amazing ability to affect people of all backgrounds and all ages, in the way she wove words into feelings. Regardless of background or experience the idea that “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” resonates.

For me it also brings home what we were trying to create when I joined others as a Museum Educator, and wanted to share a space that had the reputation for being stuffy and “hands off”; to challenge that reputation, and share the space for what it really was, a treasure trove of memorabilia, and history. So taking to heart the idea within the saying, we went to work to make the Museum visit a positive experience. This meant that while creating interactive exhibits to appeal to a variety of ages was essential, so too, was being open to changing direction within a museum framework, and being open to taking direction from the visitors themselves. As a museum educator has to make use of the exhibit space, the objects themselves, and the visitors, then, even when the visitors are kindergarten age, their opinions count. A favorite memory is the Oohs and Ahhhhs the children uttered when entering the oversized elevator. How funny, but how important to recognize that this initial welcome to the centre would be central to their desire to share the experience with parents, to encourage others to visit- even if others entered an exhibition space in the more formal manner: up the stairs and past the ticket taker.

Visualize please a wall covered with larger than life Audubon paintings, and a group of grade five students creating the movement and sounds these very static images might have produced. Or enter with me into a hall filled with flat paintings of America’s founding fathers, and hear the group of grade ten and eleven students laughingly comparing the fashions then and (well it was the early 90s)- “now”. Pull out a dollar bill and match the image to the portrait, – you get the picture.

Only recently though did I connect Ms. Angelou’s words to the Gettysburg address, and only because of a chance reading in an obscure book- the following words rang out, and immediately brought to mind: Maya Angelou’s vision. From the Address: “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here…” Lincoln.
– and the way in which art constantly alludes to earlier art, and manages somehow to reflect back while looking forward.

Poetry by its very nature remains open ended. As do many of the objects we find in different gallery spaces. These objects were created by someone, appreciated by others, and, I have to believe, meant to be shared.

It is the first Monday in August, and teachers are preparing to welcome a new school year. May 2014-2015 be filled with positive experiences. 🙂