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Turning 70:Gasp!

I’m thinking about turning 70 and the changes in my my lifetime.

I was born on Christmas Day, a perfect day for a contrary girl to enter the world. I arrived at Womens College Hospital heralded by two women, Drs. Marion Kerr and Marion Hilliard. Women’s College was the home to women not allowed to practice with the august men in the profession. One of Dr. Hilliard’s greatest desires was to have Women’s College Hospital become a teaching hospital. She was involved with the negotiations that eventually led to the hospital becoming affiliated with the University of Toronto’s department of obstetrics and gynecology. In its early days it was located on Rusholme Road. I felt a connection to the hospital for many years soI had my three kids there, attended in the 80’s by male doctors allowed to contribute their own expertise to the women on staff.

The kindly Dr Kerr assured my mother she would return after she delivered her Christmas presents . And so she did. My mother reported that she so appreciated her doctor’s kindness and care, staying in a private room for a week. Since then periods of stay have been much shortened.

About a year and half after my birth, my father who worked installing radios in ambulances succumbed to polio. That Labour Day weekend, he mowed the lawn and collapsed. That gossip was that Sunnyside Pool was the source for the epidemic although I doubt they had taken me near the vicinity of the pool and his contact to the disease would have been second hand. He spent the next excruciating nine months at Riverdale Hospital where all the polio victims were housed. He told of being able to watch executions at the Don jail through his window.

Before the Salk and Sabin vaccine, so many people were left with twisted or useless limbs or had to spend their lives in iron lungs to perform the job of breathing. He would not have survived in an iron lung because of his asthma. He came out of that hospital fully braced, disillusioned, but with a family to support. With my mother’s immense help, fortitude and courage, he did, gracing the electronics industry with his genius. The advent of the polio vaccine made the world safer and yet now stupid people refute the miraculous discovery. When I’ve gone to concerts and watched Itzhak Perlman navigate the stage swinging his lifeless legs, I’ve often thought of my father, the immense struggles of climbing stairs or even kerbs, but like Perlman, my father’s avocation revolved around his hands and his head . My mother used to compare our plight to the Little Red Hen who learned that she had to do it herself. And so she did.

Growing up, I knew one set of grandparents had left Poland in hopes of a better life, fearful of the extinction and war. There were stories of cousins having abandoned first wives and papering their walls with money to avoid deportation. I heard of my grandfather encountering his landesmen on the street in Toronto and bringing them home to provide them with a meal or even a bed, children sleeping nose to toes in overcrowded rooms. There was this aura of antisemitism my mother carried with her, one that infected me so as to not to want to identify myself as Jewish, as if I might be betrayed like Anne Frank or hustled off to an interment camp. At the library I poured over books trying to discover the details in the scary war stories.To this day, I recall in some paperback a Nazi so taken with the beautiful turquoise eyes of a child in the ghetto that he gouged them out to set them as centrepieces in gold rings, furious they had lost their lustre.

And although my parents rarely discussed politics, I recall our family being hunched around the television during the Bay of Pigs incident as they fretted about Russia and US going head to head. They worried about a nuclear war, and feared an atomic bomb destroy the world. My aunt and uncle tried to be proactive and joined organizations such as the World Federalists and Voice of Women. Yet most preferred to keep a low profile, aware that ” Jews and dogs were not allowed”.

We worried that my American cousin would go to the Vietnam Nam war and he did. There were sit ins at the universities, against Napalm and Agent Orange and public displays of support for draft dodgers fleeing the US. I did not know my husband then but we actually attended the same university, UC at U of T in the same years, he at the centre of controversies, me chatting up guys in the grassy quadrangle. He and his friend Bob Rae organized the festival Perception 67 that invited Timothy Leary and The Fugs to the campus. I remember the black folk singers who sang about freedom and resistance, and spaghetti used to recreate the experience of being on LSD in a darkened hall. ? We were exhorted to turn on. Leary although detained with his banned speech, wrote,”

Yes, young people of Canada, I’m telling you that you must drop out of school. Your education system is a narcotic, addictive process paid for by old men and women to teach you to become Romans like them selves. You must drop out of school. The aim of Canadian education, like American education, is to narrow your mind, contract your consciousness, get you to accept this reality, the ridiculous game of the television prop scenario of Canadian industrial urban life today. You must drop out.”

I also huddled close to the television to watch the first walk on the moon and hear Neil Armstrong’s words. And we were all distraught by Kennedy’s assassination, everyone remembering where they first heard the news. I was exiting a History exam in Grade 11. We lamented the fall of Camelot, his words “ Ich bin ein Berliner, “and the glamourous life of him and Jackie felled by the tangled inexplicable shooting by Oswald and the Jack Ruby cover up, as dramatized by Oliver Stone. For dreamy adolescents The Peace Corp, hope for a better, finer world were all dashed.

Television was our main means of communication as we observed the fall of the Berlin Wall so far away. And instead of the Internet and email was the telephone, should a classmate call to ask for a date for Saturday night. There was the occasional Sunday meal out should my parents find a kosher restaurant nearby and Sunday drives to the outreaches of the city, such as the wooded Unionville , to get an ice cream cone. And I remember how deliciously forbidden a Big Mac and chocolate shake were when I visited my California cousins at the end of Grade 10 in the 60’s. Hermosa Beach in my yellow pockadot bikini was heaven.

Over time clothes changed too, white being ridiculed should it be worn after Labor Day. Girls wore skirts to school. Living at the edge of Forest Hill behind our store, we were very careful about money, although both my sister and I had ballet, piano and Hebrew lessons: the last two I would have been delighted to do without. So we travelled to Buffalo where a crisp white Susan Van Husen shirt could be purchased for $1.98 and there were great sales. But on the odd Saturday, I was overcome with shame to be standing at the corner of Bathurst and Eglinton with Honest ED bags containing underwear. I insisted my mother turn those bags inside out for fear a schoolmate might see me.Fast forward to years where jeans with tears and holes, and kids bought pounds of clothes at Good Will, mixing and matching.But for me back then, I wished I could disappear into the sidewalk.

Memories come as a jumble: a few from childhood such as the strains of “ Today’s the day, the teddy bears have their picnic…”, the first time I heard the music of the Beatles at a school dance, lunch time tea dances in junior high , a wallflower earnestly praying someone might ask me to dance; lovely days at university and summers hitchhiking to view the art I initially encountered in darkened classrooms; falling in love and committing to one person, the arrival of my children and becoming a family; my post- colonial literature classes and contributing to the development of the Standards and Ethics at OCT- important, valuable and thoughtful work. I have been lucky.

But the years somehow go by so quickly and as I gaze back, many of the same scenarios pop out, over and over again while more are lost in the bank of time. You wonder. : what has made me ME, and you realize it is not just one or even a few things, the happiness and travaux that raise us up and wears us down, experiences ground as fine as dust. You draw back and through the vortex of time, you observe yourself, and can only know that each person is the same, that we all arrive at the same point, maybe wiser for the journey. But not necessarily so.

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Homes of Circles

In order to avoid the overwhelming construction on Eglinton, I veer off onto Burton and drive through the stately leafy Forest Hill area where the mansions are eye catching. Even this street is full of trucks and cars and requires some slow down. I wonder who lives here, their families, friends… and I think back on where I grew up- also in Forest Hill but behind and above my father’s store at the furthest edges of the boundary of the borough. My parents had chosen the location for the reputation of the schools, but perhaps our mother had imagined her daughters worthy of the society embraced by the children of the rich. Although I truly believe her impetus had to do with education that she had dearly savoured for herself, I think she was fascinated by the artefacts of the wealthy too.

I never considered that my home was any less than my friends’ abodes. We had formerly lived in a house on Glengarry that my parents had designed before my father had succumbed to polio. Now their plan was to simplify life, and to combine my father’s living and working spaces. But this new building also on Eglinton that we were to inhabit had my parents’ stamp on ideas and needs marked on it, my mother insistent on a small yard for us planted with grass and demarcated by a fence at the end of the alleyway.

My parents, especially my mother took care to consider, plan and arrange our living space, always aware of my father’s meagre income. I was never aware that we were likely at the thin edge of the financial spectrum. Somehow we participated in numerous lessons , were well dressed, and to my child’s mind, the equal of our neighbours around the corner or in ” the village.”My father recalled so many horrible fights between his parents caused by the lack of money  during the Depression so there were never squabbles over money in our house. He did not want his children to grow up under that nagging, cheeriless gloom. Foremost, our food was the central concern purchased at the best stores, fish and chocolate cake almost necessities, bought where all the financially comfortable neighbours also shopped. In deed I believed my pink bedroom, I no longer had to share with my sister, was- palatial in size. It overlooked the lane but its dimensions were spacious enough for two girls until our sibling squabbling encouraged our parents to cut through the wall and give my sister her own room.

I remember my surprise when my best friend Nancy who lived near West Prep made a comment about how small my room was. I was stunned , taken aback , wondering if in deed she was describing my royal bedroom. Granted, I’ve never been great with spatial measurements but I truly believed my room magnificent, with matching furniture, shelves overloaded with books and personal possessions.

In those days I would tell my father that the house I would eventually inhabit would be round. Perhaps I intuited that like a wedding band, a circle has no beginning, no end, continuous for all time. There is a vague memory of a house I had once visited that if not perfectly round had no walls to divide up the rooms so there was a flow that carried you from space to space.

And interestingly when I began my search for a perfect wedding dress at the elegant Jean Pierce ,the most coveted dress shop on Eglinton back then, I pined for a gown that was circular. Somehow about it piqued my imagination. When the price made it be unobtainable, friend and department head at Westview Centennial in the Jane Finch corridor where I was newly teaching suggested her present to me would be an incredible French crepe and lace gown that she sewed by hand. We did fittings in the girls’ washroom. It hangs still in my closet- as fabulous now as forty- four years ago.

But this idea of the circle intrigues me and not surprisingly when my real estate friend in La Jolla shared a picture of a Mexican heritage house in the shape of circle, my heart sang out and I was again smitten. But like the dress, the price, and plus I am Canadian, were only dreaming points of awe and desire for an ideal not a possibility.

Perhaps part of the reason I admit to being unable to throw out and clean up my basement of my home resides in the fact that the items I have in my home not already purged are imbued with emotions. As I attempted to unsuccessfully clear out the art room last week, I was waylaid by the books that connote significance from different stages in my life. Steppenwolf and Siddhartha by Herman Hesse from university days consumed as a mantra when we dressed like hippies. Hesse played a rallying point for Boomers. Hesse predated Mindfulness and long before “ Journey” became a ubiquitous word, particularly in speeches regarding life and profession, we actually pondered its meaning : now I cringe when I hear someone, their gaze fixed loftily away, murmurs the word. Sadly, we can say -poor  tired “ Journey” has passed away, been depleted of meaning, overburdened with overuse.

In the basement of my home, there are books associated with my years of teaching of Postcolonial Literature and writing for the now defunct Multicultural Journal , my major contribution to Northern Secondary’s Gifted Program, but one gradually erased when I left to work at OCT. I have evidence of my student’s brilliance from those days in the format of handcrafted books, paintings, videos: beginning points to my students’ immersion into the study directed by the intrepid students themselves. These fill me with pleasure.These cherished items are artefacts of my life.

From OCT are the booklets and research, journal articles and two books I wrote, edited and collaborated on that contributed to the teaching profession, my favourite published by Sage. These concrete items, gathering dust, make me proud. Other heaping piles contain the standards and implementation strategies and presentations created for the more than 300,00 teachers in Ontario. And to think I worked with almost all the faculties of education in the province also writing their additional qualification courses for post study. Impressive, no? Although courses will change, reviewed every three to five years, the standards and ethics of the profession will remain as the values we should uphold. These tenets have been with us forever: respect, responsibility, care, compassion, collaboration, etc. Back when I started at the College, Dr. Linda Grant was the brains and insightful leader of that endeavour.

In university I studied Sartre whose La Nausee addressed why we keep items close, outgrown things like teddies or even hair brushes. It is because they demonstrate that we once had a relationship with them and they validate us in terms of who were at a variety of points in our lives. They are small houses for the machinations, emotions, goings on of who we were. And particularly as we age, we try to maintain that smart and vital image of ourselves preferring not to focus on the aging mind of body of today, recalling in stead the relationships, actions and pursuits, the exhilarating and inspiring contexts that formed and nourished us. The happy child of loving parents, the aloof adolescent or careless student, the committed professional, the caring lover: all the passages into self awareness. The so- called journey. 😉

So the importance of a house, especially a circular one brings one back to the start. In the home of my house lives memories and books and reminders, the exterior – whether on Burton or Eglinton, no matter.

Post-literates who read 

Last week I read this quote from Russell Smith, “We are all finely attuned to the conversations in our own rooms.” On Thursday January 14 , he was writing in Toronto’s Globe and Mail on David Bowie and the people who were familiar with him and upon whom Bowie had had an impact, but he also addressed the fact that because we move in our own circles, we do not often hear other voices.

The same week, the Dean at Welland University in Ontario described us as a “post- literate” society, that although many of us do read to our babies and young children, few are readers themselves, not modelling that joy and interest of books beyond babyhood.Leah McLaren as well in her column decried the sanitized children’s books where original stories had been turned saccharine so as not to upset the fragile little ones and give them the illusion that everything will in deed turn out right in their world. What occurred to me was Bruno Bettleheim’s work on The Uses of Enchantment : that we do need the witches, the shivers, the scaries for multiple reasons.All these probing discussions on books cheered me and I enjoyed reading the diverse voices, albeit all coming from pretty much the same orbit. 

When I introduced my post-colonial class at Northern Secondary School, I did endeavour to elicit those “other “voices. I required the students to interview a grandparent or immigrant who had come from another country: so as to share experiences from another time and place. Because adolescents are so insular, they rarely go beyond their own head space except for videos or their headphones or their buds so they also tend to communicate within their own group. More than twenty years ago, books from Africa, India or even South America were akin to falling off the edge of the world and entering a dark hole. One parent shockingly referred to this study as “ primitive”, scolding me for this program that would not aid her daughter in university.But even then I was mindful that our world does not end at the boundaries of our local neighbourhoods. 

When teaching back then, I encountered wonderful narratives from students who actually dialogued with the old lady in the corner, the distant cousin from Scotland, the Auschwitz survivor, enquiring not only about their roots, but learning about new contexts. Separating the oldies from the wallpaper cast their progenitors in new lights as the true purpose of the exercise was to discover how similar we are to others, kin or not:how we all share in the human condition, our fears, our joys, our funny quirks that often pass from generation to generation.  

Of course, we also read the indigenous voices from Africa and India and South America. Speaking from your own tongue is so different from a Hollywood filmmaker or screenwriter who thinks they are transcribing the indigenous words of the original speaker. We did, I will admit, view Out of Africa and Cry Freedom from the sympathetic white (wo) man’s perspective. Yet I did recognize the need to listen and truly hear the language and message of the writers  themselves : Chinua Achebe, Marquez…And when books from those “ other” countries became sexy and desirable literature, I applauded that.

Interestingly, how popular even Downton Abbey has become now: a different time, set and divided classes, but spirited people in textured settings that promulgate information, apparently highly and accurately researched, extending our knowledge of the concerns, anxieties, lives lived many generations ago,but perhaps we have always envied the rich who float on a cloud of servants much like a fairytale.  And did not Moll Flanders and Becky Thatcher not tickle us as well?

And yes, it is our own circle who is watching the soon to end beautiful production that makes us voyeurs to an impossible lifestyle unless you were an aristocrat, born or married wealthy , now a tech genius, winner of the Powerball… We chortle with our friends who  set the clock for Sunday’s  production to observe the antics of the cast that engrossed us so we can mull it over with them on Monday. Still it charges our imaginations , and after Carson’s wedding to Mrs. Hughes, we all smiled sweetly in our sleep : that even the servants can have a beautiful wedding. Ahhh- in spite of Lady Mary’s insistence on celebrating her way, quiet, prim, determined Mrs. Hughes managed the wedding she wanted. 

Today video and television and Internet transports us , but a book remains for me primarily a treasure, a magic carpet.  

In terms of Leah McLaren’s point, I think of the stories I’ve shared with all of my grandchildren. Benny Bakes a Cake is a book I begin to tell them at 18 months. It is a very simple narrative.On Benny’s birthday ,he and his mother bake a cake to honour the day. However, Ralph the dog with his lolling roiling tongue, has been sitting at Benny’s feet during the entire process and when Momma removes her apron for a walk, Ralph dislodges the cake from the table. Poor Benny, for he cries and cries and cries and cannot stop.  

When I first present the story, the kids enjoy the simplicity, the few words, the clear drawings and they recognize “ birthday” and “ cake” and they join in the birthday song when Benny’s father arrives with a store bought cake to save the day. However, as they deepen their understanding , mature, get older, they begin to comprehend the catastrophe in the narrative. I will never forget the look of horror on my grandson Carter’s face when he realized that Ralph had destroyed the cake and there it lay in a disheveled mess on the floor. That moment of insight was explicit in Carter’s eyes, an epiphany that life can go wrong -even with one’s beloved dog on the most special of days. 

McLaren also examines the book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day . It is in deed a very bad day , for little Alexander, one of three brothers, narrates his sad tale of his mother forgetting to put a desert in his lunch, his teachers’ criticism of his artwork,the dentist finding a cavity and Alexander having to purchase all white running shoes when his brothers dance about and taunt him in their lively striped ones. This is another book I have shared with the grandkids.  

When I read it to Aaron, Carter’s younger brother, he followed and was very perturbed. He got the individual fragments and the overall theme: of the very bad day. But he implored me to put the book away, his face, too, revealing a connection to a child’s life ( Aaron at 4 years of age) that can be unsettling and troubling. He did not however, understand that there will be days like this and good days will follow the bad. So we will read it again when he is older and make sense of the entire tale.These moments that pierce the child’s ego are important: that the story is NOT occurring in their own lives, but it is recognizable: buildings bridges to a familiar reality. As they snuggle in close to the person who can reassure them, they are learning that yes, bad things happen but good days will follow. We cannot erase the bad from life -which will occur no matter how much cotton padding we use to muffle it, but the lesson to be embraced is that we can find ways to cope and move on, discovering solutions, good sunny things that can cause us to break out into song; or decide not to abandon all hope and move to Australia. 

Loved ones reading to their kids, cuddling close or preparing them for sleepy time are likely reliving their own delight in sharing something significant as they,too ,recapture a moment of love transmitted from their own weary parents at day’s end. I think that is why books like Babar and Madeleine and her appendix operation( talk about terrifying)and silly Curious George have endured forever.They remain part of a song of golden babyhood where love prevailed and engendered precious relationships. Besides which, the child under quilts and coverlets, exhausted from a day of raucous play presents themselves as relaxed, affable and not ready to bound on to the next activity.And if fresh from the tub, s/he also smells that delightful child smell. Warmly fastened in bed and surrounded by a circle of stuffed toys, they appear the picture of Hallmark card of perfect childhood. 

I hope that we don’t settle into a truly post literate world, for a book offers so much- to adults as well as to developing children. Plus one hopes that the memories created by this special time will surface to spark the adult to rekindle their own desire to engage with new voices and be transported back or forward into new worlds of wonder. I think Tennyson said it best in Ulysses, 

       Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

  Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades 

 For ever and for ever when I move. (19–21)

Facebook and such

I freely admit being a Luddite. Much to my father’s disappointment I possessed absolutely no technological acumen, no understanding of how things fit or should work. My 5 year old grandson comprehends Legos much better than I ever could- not to mention the internet. I guess it’s that part of my brain that owns weaker synapses and prefers the flash of colour to the driving pursuit and ability of putting things together and making them actually perform. I belong to the observer set, the passive enjoyers, not the active engagers. That’s just me.

Day long sessions at computer schools were wasted on me. I most often lost one thread of sequencing and was set adrift on the wild seas of information.I was thrown back on the pile of self-incrimination and embarrassment, clutching for a familiar word to ease me back to port and complete the action. Others seemed safely involved in their lifeboats, continually and competently dipping their oars towards the targeted goal. I would smile vaguely, pretend I was yawning, resting, whatever, just wanting desperately to get out of the so-called learning situation where all I knew was that I was incompetent.

The wisest tutorial came from a co-worker at OCT who demonstrated one single function of the computer and then disappeared. Thus I learned, used, and made the function my own.

Years later, others confided they had taken those beginner computer courses several times : Ah, how wise, particularly when the company is footing the bill.

Similarly even when I was attempting to learn to crochet, I overheard class participants also explain this was not their first kick at the can. I should have figured it out earlier because as a believer in Multiple Intelligences, I do know that we all learn in diverse ways and one instructor or teacher may or may not enlighten us in a way that makes sense to our variously- strung brains,others only reinforcing our foibles and being unable to throw us a life preserver.

In a nutshell, I’m no fan of computers. I don’t find them helpful or fun or intriguing. In fact I am infuriated by their correction of my spelling that I do not want corrected as in names that are close to nouns. As well, I fear pushing the wrong button and either losing my work or signing up for offers that will cost me a small fortune. I’m aware of “cookies” collecting data on me to be sold and meant to manipulate my daily life. Yuck.

So it will come as no surprise that I had resisted enrolling on Facebook’s site. However when number #2 daughter wanted me to vote for my gorgeous grandbaby, I had to belong to the Facebook crowd. So reluctantly I joined. I voted often, but the link on Gerber baby foods only circled round and round to bring me back to my “homepage”. And now I am stuck. Without even one vote for the most beautific child in the world. So much for Facebook.

It is a phenomenon of the times. Email replaces letter writing and phone calls and puts up for examination small bits of conversation for other Facebook joiners. I am wary of all the participants who live on or in Icloud or inhabit evanescent spaces. Some grownups embarassingly using baby pictures to indicate who they are.

There are so-called “ friends” who post “ selfies” of themselves continuously as if their incremental portrait changes reveal something new about them. Some post pictures of ads or things they find interesting and await others to comment. There is quite a bit about diets and friends of friends. Why would anyone tell you that they have visited store X three times that week or won a scrabble challenge or visited their sister in New York? Like really, does anyone really care? Apparently so!

Perhaps Facebook will eventually replace newspapers that are said to be dying. Although I cannot imagine a Saturday morning without a cup of coffee, perusing the paper by my window in my sunny kitchen. Recently in The Globe an article on Carl Klaus, a 19th century Viennese critic, decried journalists because of the spin they put on the reporting of events that removed any chance of viewing it through one’s own imagination, and fresh eyes. He was referring to the manipulation of the press. Rather, the author of the article suggested- technology provides more opportunities for diverse perspectives by individuals -as in Facebook to comment.

I think there is always a bias. Anyone who has taught English or even read a book knows a first person narrator is unreliable and even the omniscient voice moving like an angel gathering a multiplicity of views exudes a point of view in spite of pretending equanimity – written ironically from the perspective of one author who imagines what it must be like to be many, not just one voice.

When I taught Post-colonial Literature, I purposely engineered a discussion between two students to whom I deliberately assigned arguments that went totally against their loudly proclaimed personal views in class: the die hard conservative and the bleeding heart liberal on human rights issues. Apologizing first, one pleaded “Miss, I really don’t believe in this stance, however…” . Each debater was required to walk in the other’s shoes a la To Kill a Mockingbird. Even if the forceful interchange lasted only ten or so minutes, each had experienced a new way of thinking about an issue.Were they changed? Likely not, but perhaps some new angle or perplexity had permeated their thinking to encourage possibilities .

Besides locating a certain community with apparent friends whose faces, not pictures, we might better respond to with a laugh, wink or touch, Facebook provides a static interchange that does not really flow as good conversations should. It puts out random thoughts and expects quick responses. Sound bites with stunted communication. I really don’t get it. But then I belong to the Boomer generation that grew up and old before computers.

And although I am a worrier- that has nothing to do with computers, the Christmas storm showed us that everything that runs on power SUCH AS COMPUTERS can be wiped out. And if you do your banking on line, list valuable information such as phone numbers or email addresses, and your computer receives a bug, mysteriously goes off line, inextricably has not been updated or your system has been hacked, you may find you have lost valuable information, not to mention your identity. Not being able to vote on Gerber is small potatoes.

A recent documentary, “Goggle and the World Brain “ by Ben Lewis explained how Goggle was saving for our use all the books in existence, touted as “ The most ambitious project ever conceived on the Internet”. Although Google maintained they were building a library for mankind, it’s easy to imagine their purposes were not as forthright as it appeared on the surface. What if, an interviewer queried “Google wanted to sell the information in those books, that was compiled from 2002-2005 more than 10 million books? “

Big surprise that copyright laws by authors and permission to scan was overlooked or even “forgotten” by the esteemed Oxford –Bodleian and Harvard libraries. Only the skepticism and chagrin of a French librarian who did not believe that Goggle was being totally altruistic instigated a law challenge to stop the compilation. The end result yielded a mere $60 per author per copyright stipend.

What we would like to believe is good often is underpinned by less than honorable intentions and although sometimes good things come from the bad, thanks Donna Tartt, I have my druthers.

Still one must reluctantly move with the times, even if it means using technology.I guess I can use it to shop!

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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