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Archive for the month “February, 2014”

Remembering My Mother

Today my friend said to me, “You are going to be haunted by your mother”. And she smiled. She meant a good haunting. She recalled how her own mother had left her a treasure of a loving letter and her eyes filled with tears. This woman is a relatively new friend, of say, 5 years or so, so I was touched by her quiet and personal words.

Almost immediately after my mother died, I realized I would feel differently about the loss of each of my parents. With my father, more than twenty years ago, I longed to live among the happy memoires I held of him, but when I did, it made the wound much worse. With my mother, it has been a constant ache, thinking I’ll pick up the phone and tell her something that might make her laugh. I forget that she is no longer here.

That is the problem with being haunted: it hurts. It hurts because you miss someone you have truly loved and there is pain that only through memories you will see or feel close to them. Without the actual presence of a body that will respond or absorb your interactions, your thoughts float, not attaching themselves to the one to whom you have directed them.

In the days after her death I put together a eulogy that might capture her for the sake of her funeral. They were “outside” words because how do you explain what the lift of an eyebrow, a smile or a warming arm around your shoulders really means? The other words are in my heart as I think of her constantly.

Here is the eulogy I gave at my mother’s funeral. It was a difficult speech but one that I believed honoured her and her memory:

I have wrestled with the idea of speaking to you today because if you knew my mother, you would know what a particularly private person she was. She never boasted or pretended an upper hand. She kept her thoughts to herself.

However, Howard has encouraged me to share with you some thoughts and my cousin Elaine Levine wrote “that Eve ( my mother) was the family historian, and the truth teller. So I have decided to tell some of my truths about my mother.

But first, let me say this: these are my truths and every person on earth is sweet, sour, kind, harsh, simple, and complicated –so much more than mere words can impart. It has often been said that words can illuminate as well as obscure.

My mother began her life as Chava. She came from Poland at age 5 with her mother Layal, sister Sura (Toby) and an Aunt, arriving at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She had once described to me an interrupted picnic in Poland that ended with her father scooping her in his arms as he ran from Cossacks on their horses. She adored her father Joe and in my mind’s eye I can see them in our living room waltzing , him humming a song.

Her comfortable life of fur coats and dolls In Poland was transformed when she landed here. Like the displaced writer,Eva Hoffman, in Lost in Translation, she was given a new name she never liked, Eva, She preferred to be called Eve,. She was often chased by children screaming “ Green horn, tin horn, popcorn, five cents apiece”. Yet the buoyancy, the ability to overcome was already evident and she would tell us that she would climb to the highest rooftops on Markham Street and sing – in a voice that caused a radio show producer to go to her mother and ask permission to put her on air. My grandmother said No.

Not only could she sing, she exceled in many areas, but these were not the best of times for girls to be allowed to prove their excellence. Throughout her life, my mother regretted her lost opportunities.

On a moonlit cruise, she met my father and as he laid eyes on this lithe lovely 18 year old, he determined he would marry her and he did. Until the day he died, he adored her.

Their life began well but when he contracted polio, she once again, became the force that had to overcome and subsume her own ambitions. He was in the isolation ward in Riverdale hospital for 9 long months. They did not know if he would survive. Every day, by bus, she would deposit me on Atlas at my grandmother’s and then head out to visit him, admonished by her stern mother not to stop either way.

Her aim was to make our lives as normal as possible. She carried my father’s heavy tools to the car, she a mere 100 or so pounds. She sat alone at night, fearing he had fallen in the snow- and sometimes he had. She was partner, bookkeeper, cleaner, store manager, cook, but always treasured mother… My first words through the store door after school were, “Mummy…?” and she would always appear with a smile to greet me.

My sister once confessed that she thought my mother a princess . My thoughts of her were more utilitarian. I thought of her in neat shirtwaists, as she bounced downtown by bus every Tuesday morning to Eaton’s College. She smoothed out the corners of our life, even ensuring ballet, art, piano, and Hebrew lessons at the cost of a new winter coat for herself. She never complained. And at lunch time, we would fish for nickels and dimes from her worn red wallet that my father had made her in the hospital She held us all together.

I had no complaints, imagining that our home behind our store was equal to any mansion in Forest Hill.

There was little time for her. Her attempts to put a cake in the oven were always interrupted by a customer coming into our store, staying too long: those cakes raw or burnt.

But Fridays even before they moved to Alamosa Drive, she managed to create the perfect fricassee that complimented a perfectly roasted chicken. The smells of those dishes permeated our small living space for days. And before vacations, she would jump from bed before we all rose, make the chicken and wrap it in a blanket to keep it warm. We would stop roadside to devour the carrots and potatoes soaked in Heinz tomatoe sauce, cooked along with the chicken. It was yum. And on my birthdays she insisted on having her entire family over, this time a turkey and a cake from Patisserie Francoise. I resented sharing her-and my special meal-with her relatives that only appeared for suppers. In the evenings, she sank into bed, exhausted.

Life is so much more than chicken and fricassee. With my father, she created a home of love where music mattered, where my parents supported and encouraged my sister’s genius in piano and were so very, very proud of our accomplishments. It was a home where honesty and ethics were the driving force behind every single decision. Above all else, you had to tell the truth and behave like a mensch. I have always wanted to emulate my mother’s child rearing model.

Life changes . My mother told me that when my father passed away she cried so much, there were no tears left. She continued to miss him intensely. She said that in 1996 when she was hit by a car, she had heard his voice telling her to get out of the way, thus, saving her life.

As years passed,my mother’s constant running, moving, bouncing, constant motion was stripped away and she resented her lack of mobility.

But on Saturday at Tim’s ( Horton), I found her an affable companion. As always, I could confide anything to her and she would safeguard my secrets. Most times we were girlfriends, gossiping and sharing stories. She was my support in the worst of times as I drew deeply on her strength and wisdom.

At first, her needs were few: a supportive arm, a smiling face, a welcoming bed. She insisted on staying in her own apartment and controlling her life as much as she could. Even at the very end, as the world became increasingly circumscribed by the inability to walk, her fragility and the need for caregivers, she made her own decisions, not pleased by our objections.

What can you say about a life whose cornerstone is love and caring? Whose husband and children, grandchildren and great children value and understand that you are the tree from which they have sprouted.

Erich Fromm once said of a mother’s love, “The mother-child relationship is paradoxical and, in a sense, tragic. It requires the most intense love on the mother’s side, yet this very love must help the child grow away from the mother, and to become fully independent.”

I believe my beautiful, wise, brave and intelligent mother did that for Wendy and myself.

My truths and memories now belong to all of you along with your own.
Thank you.

From letter to blog: a rant on MI in education

Weekends are lazy times to sort through newspapers and just enjoy perusing the columns. Yet barely into my ritual, I find an article that makes me burst into flames. It prompted a response to the editor.

 Sunday’s Star “Educational fads not helpful” should have made me toss the page when I read that the so-called education writer, Sacherin Maraharaj was directing his ridicule towards Howard Gardner. My thesis, “The usefulness of art in education: in and out of the classroom” called on John Dewey, Elliot Eisner and Howard Gardner as support for the importance of the visual in education. During my doctoral defence at OISE, one of the examiners referred to these three theoreticians as my educational gurus. They were and still are. Dewey’s understanding of experience, both in life and in education, is incredibly applicable and as fresh today as it was in the early 20th Century; Elliot Eisner associated with the Getty Institute and his approach to art-based (DBAE) education continues to resonate; and Howard Gardner’s research into seven multiple intelligences has provided a needed focus on individual differences. He has identified the intelligences as Visual-Spatial, Bodily-kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Linguistic, and Logical –Mathematical.

Initially outraged by Maraharaj’s statements and conjectures that Gardner’s “ multiple intelligences “ were a fad, an unsubstantiated method with little research and that all children could benefit from the same pedagogy,” I wrote in my email to the editor,

“I’m wondering what he proposes: all well-dressed children sitting with their hands folded in neat rows, all heads turned towards their teacher in a suit?”

Maraharaj maintains that Gardner himself was backtracking on his research and recanting his numerous journal studies. Incredulous, I went to The Washington Post to read for myself what Gardner was querying.

Not surprisingly, Gardner addressed the criteria and actual meaning / definition of  “learning style ” and how one “recognizes, assesses or exploits that notion”.  Gardner was actually encouraging teachers  “ (to) (i)ndividualize your teaching as much as possible. Instead (my emphasis) of ‘one size fits all,’ learn as much as you can about each student, and teach each person in ways that they find comfortable and learn effectively”(The Washington Post, October 16, 2013).

Some “backtrack”!

 I can recall my best classes, particularly in Post-colonial Literature ( see earlier blogs), where I provided a topic and the students found their own touchstones to make the subject come alive. I cherish from those teaching days several three- dimensional books carefully and beautifully crafted that document the pivotal moments of South America’s history: as a back story for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, given to me as gifts from delighted students. As well, I treasure the memory of students who wrote their own dialogues, assuming the personas of characters in Rohinton Mistry’s novel, Such a Long Journey, and walked in their shoes, no longer  “others” looking in on the lives of people from India.

 I remember thinking how wonderful: that one young man had translated in a chemistry chart the frequencies of the rise and fall of a displaced family from a novel we were studying, comprehending in his own way the trajectories of fate and fortune. And I recall the brilliance of the group who decided to use the metaphor of a poker game to dramatize the Portuguese, Germans, Belgians, English and French’s use of the countries of Africa as chips in a bidding war. And with feelings of pride for student insight, even 20 years later, I reflect on a collaborative project that investigated female mutilation in Somalia and its connections in Toronto. Wow.

 Although I did teach, prepare and provide students with subject information and required assignments to satisfy curriculum expectations, each student played a part in his/her own deepening of the topic. That is the beauty of multiple intelligences: it honours that we are all unique and learn in a plethora of ways that makes sense to us. In classrooms where the mantra is collaboration, a varied approach to absorbing knowledge ensures that students enrich their understanding by looking from new eyes and respecting that diversity in perspectives can enhance learning. The openness of Bahtkin’s building dialectics ( in the previous blog) requires that people really hear their colleagues’ voices so that they can critic, contemplate and make  conversations/learning grow in interesting and unexpected ways. Those new revelations precipitate those “ ah-ha” moments when epiphanies erupt.

 Perhaps that is what I also love about art. If you stand in front of a painting and really look, the art begins to act on you. You will see a colour, a form, something that will begin to pique or resonate with you. Stand there longer and your conversation with the piece continues to grow. Voices in your head, your own and others, suggest a memory, a thought, a response that you did not know you had. Even the so-called polar bear in the snowstorm may make you shiver and you will imagine snowflakes conglomerating to cover the snarly bear. Or…  

 I will always regret the study during my Masters days of a museum-related class. Mini- exams were administered every Friday for 8 weeks, each in an identical format. A roister of professors presented lectures that concentrated on the decorative arts in silver, wood, glass, metal, glass and pottery, etc. What followed was a test based on 10 broken bits or shards. Our task was to identify the provenance, explain the composition of components, why they had broken, and the shattered artifacts’ usage.

 One professor thought it fair to trick us- as in presenting a replica of a 14th Century rural chair from Quebec and expecting that we neophytes would know it was an impostor. So we studied hard, or at least I did, got my A and to this day do not remember a morsel of what I had learned. 

In contrast, I have stored in my head and can recall the research I did in the same class on Cast Iron Toys ( banks, stove samples and Noah’s arks) in the early 20th century in Ontario. Maybe some of my fellow students can still identify pottery from Orange county in Ontario, its clay composition, the method of its production and why its colour distinguishes it as a breakfast bowl. I sure can’t.

 Cramming for the test obviously did not appeal to my particular “ style” of absorbing and retaining information. Fortunately I can still compare banks (some: replicas of buildings) in Ontario to those in America’s Golden Age of Toys ( some: racism in the form of animation) and even offer a few insights from my visits to a collector in Ottawa who kindly shared his information on his stash of toys with me.

 Sacharin Maraharaj considers himself an educational critic. How embarrassing he makes the mistake that many of my high students did: they quote out of context. They extract one piece of a puzzle to support their own diatribes.

Not surprisingly my letter(see below) that pointed out the flaws in Maraharaj’s analysis was not published. How ironic in the continuing wake of the Rob Ford scandal, and The Star’s constant attack, that simply misleading is allowed to persist by a newspaper high-handedly championing investigative journalism. Moral hogwash. Talk about hypocrisy-and believe me, I cannot tolerate even hearing the name of the buffoon who was voted mayor.

 Daily, we read about the efficacy of early kindergarten and the loss of its intellectual impacts by Grade 3.  I wonder if Maraharaj’s real topic was a political one to align himself or garner favour with those who support tests, scream about needless costs and lampoon creativity in education? Whether multiple choice tests reveal or substantiate “knowledge” or not, MI offers benefits for children. People who decry the expense only put the cost somewhere else- remedial and societal support programs because those who cannot read, or feel unaccepted in society may act out or on the society that has failed to educate or prepare them properly for life…I am not suggesting that early full day kindergarten will repair all of society’s issues: however, it damn well provides an excellent start upon which to build a healthier society.

We see MI theory at work in every kindergarten across the province in play centers and the play-based learning as the framework for early learning in our schools. This approach encourages children to stick their muddy little fingers into a variety of learning methods, They are engaged in an “experience” in Deweyian terms (for sure) through a multiplicity of sensual responses and intellectual stimulations in positive, practical environments supported by well trained professionals. Perhaps Maraharaj might scorn this as merely first rate daycare for people who otherwise might have dropped the kid at the neighbours. I’ld rather my kid interact than stare at the television or be tossed a video game. But again that’s me. Or forgive me if I am taking his argument out of its original context. 😉

I  truly don’t know where his argument comes from or why he more than tinkered with the meaning of The Washington Post’s meaning. As an educator, he does not do service to his readers. As a writer myself, I consider how twisting facts might grow into plagiarism or a total disregard for the validity of the work of others. For me, it’s a moral question: of how we use the ideas of others.

 When I taught, I always felt it was not so much what you taught but how you taught: that stimulating children so they want to learn and excite their interest and desire would enable them to stay curious, continue on and eventually discover what they were passionate about. Knowing the basics of reading and counting opens the doors of lifelong learning and a thirst for education. With these tools, children could go anywhere.

My grandson has been in English and French kindergartens and I have picked him up in both classrooms where at 5 o’clock there is still so much going on, that kids do not want to leave. Yesterday I walked in on pancake making for Channukah, noted kids constructing with enormous blocks, observed windows decorated with all the holidays, heard laughter, and witnessed engagement: the feel that any teacher will recognize of an excellent environment for children. I was literally knee deep in learning through play: new skills, collaboration, social adjustment, co-operation, respect for teachers and environment. What I saw, at least superficially, were well-adjusted children from diverse cultures, playing and learning.

This moment brought to mind a story that Stephen Lewis tells of his visits to Africa and how every single child he encountered has a desperate dream to go to school. This is the school I would envisage for all children, one that instigates the beginning of a lifelong process that fortifies the young and strengthens communities. We want all of our children to know they are the threads in our social tapestry, and that school is good, safe and rewarding.

If you look carefully at schools in Ontario, you will see these programs are built on Gardner’s MI theories; and truly- theory that lives in practice.



The Letter to the Editor at The Star



Sunday’s Star Educational fads not helpful should have made me toss the page when I read that Maraharaj was directing his ridicule towards Howard Gardner. I’m wondering what he proposes: all well-dressed children sitting with their hands folded in neat rows turned towards their teacher in a suit?


 Incredulous that Gardner would backtrack on his research and recant from his numerous journal studies, I went to The Washing Post to read for myself what Gardner was actually querying.


 Not surprisingly, Gardner speaks to the criteria and actual meaning / definition of  “learning style ” and how one “recognizes, assesses or exploits that notion”.  What Gardner actually says to teachers is “Individualize your teaching as much as possible. Instead ( my emphasis) of ‘one size fits all,’ learn as much as you can about each student, and teach each person in ways that they find comfortable and learn effectively.”(October 16, 2013)


Anyone who has taught knows this to be true.


Sacharin Maharaj makes the mistake that many of my high students did: they quote out of context. They give you only one piece of a puzzle to support their own diatribes.


To call MI an educational fad is a disservice to The Star’s readers.



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