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Archive for the month “July, 2016”

Things in Wrong Places

This week my daughter staying here with her two babies looked up at a tall tall tree two houses over and observed a hawk. Yes, a hawk in midtown Toronto at Avenue and Lawrence. She knows because she does these amazing nature walks in the country where she lives in a picturesque town outside of Philadelphia. What was a predatory bird doing in North Toronto?

That got me thinking about things that don’t belong.

The Republican National Convention brought to mind that old Jim Carrey movie, the Truman Show, or what I remember of it. Watching the beautifully scripted and choreographed sons of Donald Trump, I felt as if I were watching a play composed in a studio. Young men who over the years on Celebrity Apprentice who barely uttered more than mono-syllabic grunts of approval to their mega boss were poised and well spoken. My mouth hung open. And daughter Ivanka , the cherry on the ice cream in her perfect pink turning left and right to capture the crowd’s attention, all lauded their ignoramus of a father as wise, hardworking and ever so compassionate as a president hopeful.And maybe he will be! I noticed Trump’s demeanour had been improved and even his down to earth too loud ramble began to sound reasonable: That is the scary bit as the dictator weaves his web with lies and slurs and vague unsubstantiated promises that He can and damn it, will “fix “ America ( to the hoards chanting, “USA…USA…USA…” )and make it right, always capitalizing on fear, he pontificates, Give me the power- and the people on the floor of the convention, the overwhelming number of middle and lower class white Americans in their silly shiny hats and gaping mouths ( like mesmerized me?) cheer and shout approval. Papa will take care of the dragons of government and keep out all the bad people. He will protect you and build walls.

And later on Sunday’s Meet the Press, the same toned down Trump explains that the purpose of the EU was “ to beat America” and by the way, keep all those war- ravaged Syrians in camps at home. So much for the land of the free and the brave. And forget NATO.

My mind like many others imagined the moustachioed dictator who promised similar security for Germany, keeping or exterminating or locking away those rodent- faced Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Catholics and mentally- impaired. The beer halls were full of nodding, applauding folk who burdened down by war treaties like Versailles and restrictions after WW1 were tired of their economic restraints and their humbling by other European countries. Chanting, marching, goose- stepping – remember Regensberg? Nuremberg?to progress with the funny outcast fellow who bellowed and promised pie in the sky, better times, make Germany great again, they desperately wanted to believe.

Amidst Trump’s crowd, one black, one Latino and a few in skullcaps( well, he did say Israel was the only friend in the Middle East) . And my heart sang Shame, shame, shame on you Americans, falling for the lies of the rich businessman. He has exposed himself in debates, in interviews, on talk shows- wherever- as less than a performer and the gall to think he possesses the knowledges to repair America. It truly boggles the mind that he is a possible White House hopeful.Today, July 25, 2016, his rating was 48% to Hillary’s 46. Has the world gone totally mad or are we just watching a egregious TV show where the old guy( with the comb- over ) gets the pretty model like Sophia Vergara?

Sesame Street used to sing, “ One of these things is not like the other, one of these things does not belong…” I know my thinking unusually does not reflect the majority, but none of our friends in San Diego support Trump, and the only person anywhere who said they did was an customs guard we has encountered at the aero port. We were joking about Rob Ford( before his cancer) at the border crossing , and this seemingly gentle , pleasant man volunteered with great pride his choice for the next president of the United States.Gad Zooks! Even Republican hopefuls repulsive Ted Cruz and John Kasich rejected him, one openly lambasting him; the other refusing to attend the Convention.

To jump back to actual fictional, Black is the New Orange, has also reached an incredibly depressing level of life, this time in prison as the privatization of Litchfeld.The humanity of the prisoners is revealed as personages you might chat with at the grocery store or the library appearing devoid of their crimes, heinous or not: contextually stories even make one sympathize with their reasons for being jailed.They hang out, complain about the food, tend gardens, do nails, confide their desires for love, companionship and better lives. Fraud, swindling and even murders are comprehended as the endgame due to incredible circumstances. The women, all races, colours, sexual orientation are almost mundane as girlfriends.

However,overcrowding and the imposition of psychotic guards have distorted circumstances to such an unbearable degree that inmates ( in the last episode) have rioted, peaceful tactics and sitins having been abandoned. Brute force trumps any reason. Again, it is the rule of the ignorant, the bullies to have the inmates taught “ manual education” as opposed to opportunities for true learning, forcing them to actually build more institutional cages, even destroying the small patch of land where a handful of tomatoes and fresh vegetables were grown. To the outside world, their re- education boasts a valuable skill; more lies, repositioning truth for profit.

I am not taking aim at business nor on the basis of one NETFLIX ‘s show decrying or believing that that like Chicken Little that the sky is falling. But as I survey the world With Brexit and Trump and his idiotic talk ( last night’s joke regarding Hillary’s lost emails), daily gun rampages everywhere, the world does seem to be coming apart. Yeats would intone, “things fall apart/ the centre cannot hold…”,ironically in 2016, way past Orwellian predictions of a brave new world. This cannot be what brave looks like, I fear.

 Ban guns, listen and hear the voices of the oppressed, don’t forget the past, and do not vote Trump.

Eli Wiesel and Stories

As been noted by many newspapers, Eli Wiesel, was a very special human being. He felt that having survived Shoah, that he had a profound responsibility to speak out for all those who did not. He broadened his insights from Jews to all those oppressed. Interestingly Rick Salutin in The Star newspaper last week presented another opinion, in spite of Wiesel’s Nobel Laureate award, an unflattering observation of an aging man whose views did not champion all people or nations.

At Northern Secondary,our enlightened department head, Harold Lass, put into place an incredible curriculum of literature even before Margaret Atwood became a house hold name. In OAC( Ontario Academic Credit for graduating students in the 90’s), our students studied the imposition of tyranny on women’s bodies via The Handmaid’s Tale and Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage that examined the Noah story from the bible.

In Grade 11, ours students studied Night, the autobiographical time captured in Wiesel’s novella, describing the holocaust victims’ marches wherein mates had to bargain, or steal bits of bread, where beloved parents were either dragged or laid down by the roadside, where random individuals were executed by brutal guards. Anyone who has vicariously endured the torments of the camps through Wiesel’s adolescent eyes will never forget them. In my years of teaching, many moments persist: one being a young girl who insisted Night, like most books, was only a story and that it was made up, just a story. It did not touch her. No matter what was taught or explained, she and some of her North Toronto classmates vigorously refused to accept Night as actual events. I don’t recall any expression of horror or even surprise, but continual affirmation that books tell stories that are conceived in the heads of writers, and therefore, are untrue. Maybe because they were teens, they rejected everything or maybe they felt the incidents so bizarre, too painful to be possible.

As adults, we understand that a tale may be shaped or conceived in the imagination; however, there may be , and in historical fiction especially, remnants or morsels of truth to be shared with readers. My students’ responses were problematic in several ways: Yes, It was Wiesel’s story and a story by definition is filtered through the mind of the teller. It is unverifiable. We cannot observe it first hand with our own eyes, and every second hand narrative may be circumspect, particularly in a cynical society; however, the darker issue resides in the refutation of genocides and fascist events that have plagued individuals and negators such as the Jim Keegstras of the world who actually taught that the holocaust did not occur and that Jewish conspiracy controls world events, his hate mongering harking back to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Needless to mention, even the filming of hideous events such as the Nice murders or Turkey coup are passed through media in the hands of the camera person whose eye lights upon the tragedy of the horrendous scenes. Yet, we do accept the veracity of these unfolding events.

But my student, the strong denier who forthrightly rejected the holocaust as/ is in deed troubling. As years lengthen from the heinous event, grandparents or aged friends who lived through the wars or worse, and even our own children are distanced, obviously not experiencing the same horror we did growing up in a post- war environment. The survivors who can still relate the atrocities are dwindling, and more criticism is heaped on March of the Living. My own father born in Canada felt it not a wise thing to visit the gas chambers, explaining there is enough misery in the world without burdening our children with images that cannot be erased and will form intrinsic signposts in their lives.

In the 70’s I travelled by myself in Europe and my experiences in Austria and Germany were all good, even crashing in a bed in some dorm when I flew in at 3 am, offered up by a kindly passenger. Or walking with a map in Munchen, a man in a long black coat with no other motives but to help me find my location insisted on accompanying me by streetcar and subway safely to my destination. So my memories even before the Berlin Wall came down caused me to ponder this society that was unfailingly helpful, kind and even raucous in the beer halls. ( Remember I was in my early 20’s)

I had planned on visiting Dachau , but was shocked to observe the immaculate camplike bunks and neat unadorned walls. Except for a horizontal sculpture of twisted bodies at the entrance,, there was little evidence that this camp selected gypsies, Jews, music aficionados, homosexuals, politicos who disagreed with party policy silenced by deportation.This was the very first of the camps. But as I recall it, there were no statements to the flogging, the hangings, the sadism , brutality, death marches or the deprivation of humanity that consumed its inmates.

Americans visiting that day I heard kept demurring, “ It’s not so bad”. And truthfully had I not been fascinated with stories of Nazis gouging out luminous eyes of little girls or dogs set on prisoners tearing them apart like turkey legs, I, too, might have cast my eyes on the whitewashed walls and nodded in agreement. Many many years later,I reflected on Yad Vashem’s Memorial that tenderly and painfully evoked the loss of life through The Children’s Memorial in Jerusalem or the heaped mountains of shoes in the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

And Yes, resting on a park bench back in 1970 at the schloss in Heidelberg, I did overhear some kerchiefed women mutter,” Ah, if the fuhrer were only alive…”

Even as we welcomed the Vietnamese boat people and admitted war torn Syrians to our own borders, the Canadian government was not kind or generous to Jews during those terrible war years of 1933-48 as documented by Irving Abella and Harold Troper’s None Is too Many. In Toronto, Centre Island boasted signs comparing dogs and Jews and quotas for Jewish entrance to universities and the professions were tightly reined in.

Watching Eye in the Sky last night brought  home the value of a single person. Helen Mirren as the colonel must decide on whether to fudge a percentage   point to to save possible catastrophic explosions. The image of the lovely young girl innocent of war and crime and mathematical magical calculations twirls in her hoopla hoop. She is at the centre of a dilemma. The Talmud states,”, Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

(Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Yerushalmi Talmud 4:9, Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 37a.)

In these days of terrors, we think of Wiesel, Dachau, Nice, Turkey and wherever souls are destroyed. How troubling that wars continue to plague us, and people continue to deny that we are locked into a pattern that never seems to end.

When context alters 

Some people love baseball- like my husband. In fact for several of his birthdays I’ve arranged surprise trips to Fenway Park and Wrigley Field for his predilections and always he’s over the moon in anticipation of the joust that will occur among teams, knowing moves and stats and conditions of play… I attend and I observe the venders, the fanfare, munch peanuts, survey the crowd, and pay some attention to the game. Besides he likes me to accompany him.So I go. 

But yesterday was different. It was Canada Day. Usually it’s a steamy afternoon, sitting sweltering amidst other sweaty fans,and the boisterous noise that makes me wish I’ve left my hearing aids on the night table. 

But yesterday started off differently. The weather threatened rain so to begin with, it was cooler and the dome at The Rogers  Centre was closed. So we were a contained lot, not quite as exuberant in spite of a marching band and first throw out by a military man. Marcus Stroman was on the mound and he was intense. My husband remarked that as long as Stroman kept his pitches down, he would succeed in striking them out. My husband communicated this strategy by tapping the air in a downward position. And Stroman complied. 

But suddenly the umpire, ( to be identified in the papers this morning as Vic Carapazza) , a hairless strutting creature was making spurious calls, redefining strike zones. In the very first inning, Edwin Encarnacion a local favourite, took Carapazza on. 

And was tossed.  

Even manager John Gibbons who strode onto the field also exchanged words and he too was ejected from the game. Surprisingly the game was “not played under protest”, perhaps it was felt that the ump would settle down.  

But He didn’t.  

Even I began to react, chanting with the crowd at the absurd calls that were being made on players who looked rather amazed themselves. Anything might be considered a strike or an out. Clearly throws that skidded directly across the waists of players were being interpreted alternately as strikes or not. We were all together scratching our heads and wondering what was wrong with this peacock moving so confidently at home plate, boldly gesticulating line up changes to the fans as if he were conducting a symphony, and it was the tuba’s turn to play. 

Finally in the 13 th inning, back catcher Russell Martin expressing what the incredulous crowd was feeling exploded, wanted to shake some sense into Carapazza’s capricious calls. Quoted later as saying, “…I just know it wasn’t the best display of umpiring that I’ve seen( The Globe and Mail,pS5, July 2, 2016),Martin’s gross understatement prompted yet another removal of a Blue Jay player.Fortunately he was bodily restrained by two of his team mates, but the fans would have applauded any shake that might have realigned Carapazza’s calls.

It was a great pitching game that culminated in Ryan Goins explaining he hadn’t pitched since high school with Bo Schultz, Darwen Barney all throwing their hearts out at the mound. Not so much the umpiring: as noted by anyone in attendance.  

But being someone who professes she know little about baseball, I can offer parallels about life.The story here was a game, a game, especially on Canada Day, that had to do with national pride, a clean and fair combat . Certainly not a game of thrones but a battle between opposing teams from different places, each wanting to assert their strength, ingenuity, strategy and dominance on the over. Each wanting to be able to shake their flag victoriously at the end of a confrontation structured with rules and uniforms( ours were red and white for Canada Day) and knowledgeable persons. But into this game strode a red herring, an umpire who changed the story of what might have been, misshaping the collision.  

Of course when the dome is closed and the trajectory of balls in the air changes, or a player has twinges his arm or hip, let’s say a recovery from a Tommy John surgery, well, we expect certain irregularities can occur so that the ball can not easily soar and pierce the air aiming towards the CN Tower, but this ump, this fly in the ointment was different and instead of the game, he who should have merely shaped and fairly called strikes and misses became the story that showcased him into 19 innings.  

We were caught in anger, amusement, fury,and disbelief at this intruder into the purity of the sport, trying out our own calls and laughing when our calls concurred with Carapazza’s, me noting that the left handed hitters suffered even more strange indictments. 

The story shifted from the players and the teams and the game towards this little person. moving towards boredom by the 16th inning, when we finally departed , our bums unwilling to endure the entire 6 hours and 13 minutes.  

I desperately hoped the baseball gods would allow a win for the Jays as it was Canada Day, but the Cleveland Indians won 2-1.

Yet this game was not a baseball game, it was entertainment where the main actors played their roles well but were upstaged by a stagehand who impeded and altered the true performance of the game. Just as in life when one small aberration can sink the ship.

And it did 

Teaching in Jane-Finch: response to Deborah Dundas

In Sunday’s Star A Belated Thanks for a Beloved Teacher ( Sunday June 26) describes the influence of Howard Rosen, Deborah Dundas’s grade 5 teacher at Shoreham Public School in 1974. Dundas is the books’ editor at the Toronto Star newspaper. She states that Shoreham Public was one of the “ toughest [schools]” just north of Finch at Jane and Driftwood.
I know what she is talking about because I started my own teaching career in that desolated area at Westview Centennial Secondary School in the 70’s; and we would be one of the recipients of Shoreham students. It was the years of the incredible Hall- Dennis Report with its concepts that shattered traditional teaching. With grand plans and lofty visions, its implementation only created greater havoc in the fragile neighbourhood of Jane-Finch. Instead of the Report’s proposed 16-18 students in a class with several involved teachers, the numbers ballooned to closer to 30 with usually one educator unable to properly supervise.No surprise that kids wandered off, took long lunch breaks, or found their education at the mall, the only landmark in that vast wasteland. When students arrived to our more or less conventional schooling at Westview, there were bound to be collisions.
How bizarre that in my very first year of teaching, I had to face a Grade 11 English class in a room with no desks and only a few stacked bleachers. When a young man angrily tossed his text book to the ground proclaiming “ This is rubbish”, I thought I was so clever to substitute the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby. Maybe they listened and even interacted , but more likely,they merely scoffed. I was young, naïve, untested, idealistic. From that classroom I recall a scene of kids milling around, disinterested and unfocused, and me, confused, grimly smiling and attempting to harness interest that would provoke learning.
I’d heard some teachers received a kind of combat pay for teaching in the area and that in our motor shop, one teacher had been punched out. That may have been gossip. My only incident occurred in the art supply room when a lad rubbed up against me. But maybe the space was just too tight to prevent bodies colliding. Still I vividly relive my burning face as I returned to class, hands tightly clutching paint brushes.
Jane- Finch was my first real teaching job ( I went on to Forest Hill, Northern Secondary and Oakwood). Although I had completed my last practice teaching at Westview( always with superlative reviews!) , I surmised this school might not be my first choice as the vibe was so different from my other placements; however, I was off searching art galleries in Europe that summer and I was more focused on traveling and the school had wanted me back so it was easy to put hiring logistics into place. That summer there was a “Pink Letter “ that prevented hiring so I arranged for my father to sign a contract for me as soon as the letter was lifted. And after months of rambling abroad, I would come home to a job.
My English head at Westview was young and supportive and as an ingenue, he inspired me. My art head seemed to have other designs and I feared our relationship might become tangled. Fortunately I had a boyfriend so no boundaries were breached, but the too familiar undertone piqued me. He left shortly after my first year and his replacement became a treasured friend and inspiration.
The art classes were much easier to teach than English because the kids elected art as a subject. In contrast, they resented being stuck taking English. Those first few years, I had a mixed schedule of art and English. As a newbie, you are not given choice assignments so mine proved to be challenging; and my grade 9 tech boys were not exactly a prize to be welcomed by even experienced teachers.

I was barely 21, fresh face, anticipating I could make a change. I admit their noisy energy, forth right approach to language and dizzying behaviour both drew me in, but also made me a little fearful. They were a boisterous group, but when it came time to be evaluated for my permanent teaching certificate, I considered the class in which I had made the greatest strides and I felt proudest of my accomplishments with that Grade 9 all boy tech class.
Those days you were on probation for two years before receiving your permanent contract. I chose this group so I could celebrate how well I was managing and teaching. The superintendent who would decide my fate was Mr. G.-something. When he carefully navigated his way among the chairs and tables in the room, he seemed to be keeping his distance from the messy contingent of adolescents, who were checking him out. One fellow even called out“Yoh,, Sir!” To no visible response. I believed he would be so impressed with my obviously difficult class.

I used Leonardo da Vinci that day, carefully chosen because the boys could connect with machines and shops. They gathered close, falling over one another and we fixated on the brightly coloured examples I was pointing out in art books. They were quiet, listening, all gelled hair and over- sized running shoes. They were eager to begin their projects and except for nods, and the feeling of excitement, I had their attention for a full 10 or 15 minutes. I knew I had connected. Even as a young teacher, you are aware when a lesson goes over well, and that invisible web holds you all together, focused and sharing, all one. It was one of those experiences that locks itself in your mind and you, as a teacher, revisit it with pride and even- love -years later.
True, there were books heaped on the floor, Alice Cooper on the record player, the casual feel and gawky intrusion of elbows and knees into another’s space , but all so much less important than real communication occurring in a community of students.
I was soaring as they returned to their desks to implement my lesson:my pedagogy evident.

G. departed the room and I relaxed, smiling, confident, my own energy depleting.
At the end of the period, my department head knocked at my door and asked me a few questions: that I could not imagine applied to me. I figured the superintendent had marched out and on on to survey another victim. Maybe I was not listening because her words did not describe my magnificent performance.
Shortly after , I was called into the principal’s office and it was explained that student artwork on the walls was not properly hung. Period. The end.

And what of student engagement? Well -constructed lesson plans? Instructions well laid out and projects resulting that accomplished the task? What of enthusiasm of both student and teacher? What of an evidenced relationship that spoke of trust and support and a supportive environment? And what of my carefully prepared lesson plans and day book turned over before the class? Had I not accomplished the educational objectives for class, student, curriculum?The principal could not possibly be describing the class I had taught for my certification. Still in a fog, I felt removed, an outsider to this conversation: in which the chef topic was misaligned student work on walls!

But because the principal and especially my department heads had championed me, I would be given a second chance to re-enact a lesson and duly impress the superintendent. In deed, the fix may have been in.

I was stunned, wandering around in disbelief. I knew I had taught perhaps the most impressive lesson in my short career. Most importantly I had connected in a meaningful way to my students. I’d had their attention; they had listened with fascination at the gears and gizmos of Da Vinci’s , had followed instructions and proceeded towards their assignments, analyzing and applying newly gleaned information – that they actually found relevant. I had triumphed, or so I had thought. G. obviously did not agree.

It was a grey blur of pounding nerves in my head the day of trial number 2. My department head straightened the pictures on the wall, exactly employing a ruler to ensure they all lined up perfectly with the dooredge. For me, it was the students, the transfer of knowledge, not the context, that mattered so deeply. I would not have known how to change my presentation when I so fervently believed in a pedagogy that worked with the hearts and minds of students, that responds and builds and stimulates. Frankly, I do not recall one second of the followup lesson I was permitted to unfold. I do, however, remember the boys’ turning, craning necks and puzzled looks as Mr. G re-entered their space.

The meeting after this lesson declared I had passed muster and I was given my papers.
Not speaking, no doubt my face registering incredulous disbelief, G., in an airless room, observed me, saying” You don’t think you changed a thing , do you?”

Of course, I had not. But beaten down by the situation I demurred barely audible, “ Yes, sir”. We locked eyes but I looked away and down.

Still my memories are varied at Westview. One of my favourites concerns my department head measuring me for my wedding dress in the school washrooms during breaks, French Chantilly lace aside the garbage bins overflowing with paper towel; an English student’s insight into Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Pied Beauty, that maybe weeds are flowers to Nature; a camaraderie among colleagues and wonderful spirited Christmas shows where even I dressed in football gear for the predilection of the students. And perhaps , my proudest accomplishment : of helping one of the two students in the entire school who went on to pursue art at York university.

That was 1970 when girls were accompanied by overbearing parents, escorted directly to our front doors Abandoning their parents’, usually their fathers’ stern eyes, they would leap towards the washrooms to apply copious amounts of makeup and roll up waist bands. It was the same school in 1971 in which I dared to wear a pantsuit but was admonished that if I intended to dress like a man, I’d better keep my fly up.
Those were the beginning years of my immersion into teaching and the stories I would later capture in a book entitled Cases for Teacher Development: Preparing for the Classroom , published by Sage , when I worked as a program officer at the Ontario College of Teachers thirty years later. Narratives of this ilk would serve as implementation strategies when our standards at the College were finally released. We had examined the work of teachers and from their narratives, deduced what the tenets of teaching should be, decanting them into ideals of responsibility, collaboration, care, honesty, etc. We created a casebook entirely based on the lived experiences of twelve teachers, but chosen from several hundred ( two were mine) in Ontario. I invited international experts to provide commentary. From Australia to The United States, educators and philosophers at the forefront of educational theory and practice contributed to our book that was used by a number of universities here and abroad. Later a second book was added.

Too bad Howard Rosen wasn’t one of our many participants to contribute to that casebook .I’ll bet he had many a great tale to demonstrate what great teaching should look like.
Teacher stories are powerful, and meaningful.Reading Deborah Dundas’ piece recalled my years in Jane-Finch. Rosen made the difference for Deborah Dundas and so many more.

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