Sunday, 12 March 2017

Gibara Reflections

Sometimes a place you visit stays with you. Gibara is one of those places. 

On the evening of September 7, 2008, Hurricane Ike made landfall in Gibara, Cuba. 

Twelve meter high waves and winds of up to 209 km an hour lashed the coast, flattening homes, decimating crops, and turning whole communities to rubble. 70% of Gibara's homes were damaged, many ruined beyond repair.

Gibara  waterfront September 2008. Hiram Enriquez of Digital Stucco
Gibara- "la Villa Blanca"-the white city- a formerly wealthy and elegant sugar port, known for its bohemian spirit and love of the arts, now a sleepy fishing village of quiet streets and aging colonial buildings. Crushed.

Along the waterfront February 2017
The government had evacuated all residents in the path of the storm. An estimated 2.6 million Cubans-25% of the country's population- got out of the way of the storm. In its wake, seven were dead and there were 7.3 million in damages, Cuba's costliest natural disaster.

After the storm passed through Cuba, it moved on to Texas.  There, residents refused to obey their mandatory evacuation order. Despite being a "first world country", despite warnings of certain death, 200,000 of those under evacuation notice refused to leave their homes. Of the 195 who died in Hurricane Ike, 113 were in Texas.

September 2008 Hiram Enriquez of Digital Stucco
After Ike, the people of Gibara picked themselves up and cleaned up the mess and began to rebuild. They had very little in the way of international support. But they moved on with their lives, because that is what you do.

It has taken them years. 
Downtown Gibara today
Walk the streets of Gibara today and you won't see rubble. You'll see stately buildings,sea scoured and sun bleached. 

You'll see the charming colonial Hotel Ordona and the newly opened Hotel Arsenita, waiting for tourists. 

You'll see stained glass and brilliant paint. You'll find a quaint museum with its dioramas and an enormous whale skeleton. 

You'll find hilltop miradors and cafes with spectacular views. 

You'll find peaceful homestays with lovely courtyards and rooftop patios. 

You'll see the fabulous Cinema Jiba, home to the yearly "Poor Man's Film Festival." 

You'll find older people who smile and shake your hand and thank you for coming to their town with your tourist dollar. 

You'll see dignity. 

You'll see resilience.
Hotel Arsenita

On May 15, 2011, disaster visited Slave Lake. 130 km an hour winds and a massive wall of flame raced through my town. Thousands of people jumped into their vehicles and evacuated themselves without any public warning or formal evacuation notice. There were no deaths.  But the destruction was immense. 

More than 400 homes were lost in the Slave Lake wildfire-a far cry from the 43,000 homes destroyed in Cuba by Hurricane Ike. But unlike the Cubans, the people of Slave Lake had insurance. They had government assistance. My town had millions in donations from people around the world through the Red Cross and other agencies.  

The people of Slave Lake, like the people of Gibara, picked themselves up and got on with rebuilding. Because that is what you do.

Six years on you would not know anything happened in my town. We have buried the scars of our disaster behind the facades of our beautiful new houses and lovely landscaping and brand new public buildings. You'll see no reference to the wildfire, not even in the name of the Legacy Centre, built almost entirely with disaster recovery money.
Ruins along the seawall.

Not so Gibara. 
You still see its scars in the ruined concrete along the sea wall. 
You see the damages in the broken pavements and boarded up windows.
You see the history of their struggle written on walls still waiting to be restored.

Most of all, you see its spirit. 
The spirit of its people who are quietly getting on with life. 
Because that is what you do.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Tienda Telephoto

I took this photo of my husband in Gibara. 

If you look just past his shoulder, you'll see an old man reading a paper in front of a small shop. I zoomed in with my telephoto and took some pictures. 

They tell a story.

Postcards from Holguin

Sending a postcard is a simple task. Or at least one might think so.

You buy the cards, write on them, address them and go to the post office.

And in Cuba, that's where it gets interesting.

The first clerk takes one look at the cards and indicates you should go to the second clerk. The second clerk asks where the cards are going. Three to Canada, one to the United Kingdom, you say. She shrugs like she doesn't know where that is. "Angleterre?" you say hopefully. She says nothing to you but there is a steady and loud stream of chatter to the other two ladies at their wickets. All three look put out by the imposition of this foreigner. "You must take them there," she points back to the first clerk. The lady makes a great production of locating two 50 peso stamps from the copious folders in her plastic bin. She clucks her tongue in exasperation several times. Then she jots down some notes on her scratch pad, attaching the stamps to the card with a paper clip, and passing them, along with a nail polish shaped bottle of glue, back to the first clerk who busies herself with attaching the stamps. She repeats the process with the Canadian cards, each of which require one 65 peso stamps. There is more jotting down of numbers, head shaking and tongue clucking.

"Cuanta cuesta?" you ask. "One Eighty," she says carefully in English. You pull out your money. There is great consternation. No,no,no. Only national money. You have no national money. More over-the-counter talk with the clerks. More head shaking, eye rolling and apparent disgust. The people behind you get involved, a handsome elderly gentlemen and two young women. The elderly fellow shows you the national currency. You try to give him your money in exchange. He won't take it. The clerk is about to hand you the cards, then pulls them back, then hands them to you, shooing you away like she's done with all this nonsense. "Finished," she says.

You're so confused. One of the young female customers speaks. She points to the old man who smiles a beautiful smile. "He has paid for you stamps."

"Muchos gracias!" you exclaim.

She takes you gently by the hand, and you walk out to the sidewalk where she takes the cards and deposits them in the mailbox with a flourish.

I don't know if the cards will reach their destination, but they've had an expressive send-off.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Cayo Saetia

"A machine could do his job," my husband says, nodding towards the guard coming out of the security booth on the causeway.

The guard glances into the car.

"Passeportes?" He asks.

Passports? Nobody told me we needed passports to get onto the island.

"No passports?" says the driver. He pleads with the guard, a man in his early 20s. It's well over half an hour back to the guesthouse. The guard is expressionless. No passports, no entry.

Within minutes, the Lada is back on the road, dodging potholes, making a break for it on the smooth patches. At the guesthouse I grab the passports and back we go. The guard remains emotionless as he takes the documents to the sentry booth, returning them a few minutes later.

Cayo Saetia is spectacular. It's a wildlife preserve with antelope, water buffalo and ostriches. It is said it was Castro's private island, and that Soviet visitors enjoyed firing ammo into the wildlife. I have no idea if that was true.

We drive down to the bay where visitors can take jeep safaris and ride horses. There is a palm-thatched bar and restaurant perched along the shore. Coves of coral sand spread in both directions-not a soul in sight. The water is clean and still and Caribbean blue. We spend the day snorkeling and lazing on the beach, interrupted just for a few hours by the catamarans that arrive from the resorts. The merrymakers spend most of their time in the ranchon style restaurant, half an hour on the beach, then head out, drinks in hand.

On the dot of five, the Lada returns. Back to the sentry hut. The same guard is there. He searches the vehicle with his eyes, and when he sees mine, he steps toward the car. Wordlessly, he hands me an exquisite flower, freshly woven of palm fronds. As if to say, ""I'm sorry for your troubles."

"A machine wouldn't do that", my husband says.

Friday, 3 March 2017

The Road to Nicaro

Bougainvillea splash wild across the hillside. On the other side of the road, the Atlantic fades blue to the horizon with its improbable sugarloaf mountains. 

We're on the road to Nicaro.

A Spanish version of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" plays on the driver's state-of-the-art MP3 player, jerryrigged to the dash with a customized piece of plastic. It's a "good car, an American car" -a late 1950s Ford. It floats over the potholes. The music changes to a Cuban pop song and the driver's mom and dad sing along, smiling.

Coming toward us is a teenager on his cellphone. His shorts are brilliant yellow. They match his sideways ball cap. His T-shirt is yellow and the same pink as the bougainvillea. His grandfather sits beside him, hands lazily holding the reins of the horse drawn hay cart.

On the road to Nicaro, anything seems possible.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

The Presence of the Past

Lessons for Kenney Part 2

Photos of my ancestors look down from my walls.  My paternal great grandfather, Samuel Hartford, who came from Vermont to open a general store in Neepawa. My maternal great grandparents Charles and Eliza McNaught who moved from Brantford to pioneer in the Beaverlodge area. My paternal grandmother Muriel Fryer, a nurse of possibly uncertain parentage. My maternal grandfather who was sent to Canada as an orphan. My parents who chose to start a new life in a brand new town. 

Their faces look down on me every day.

The impact of my ancestors of my life is immeasurable. I carry their DNA and their actions and their life stories and the secrets they never told. I carry their sense of adventure. Their curiosity and openness and willingness to make changes in their lives. I'm influenced by the sacrifices they made when they left their own land to find a better lives with more opportunities and religious freedoms. Their quests to find and make communities where they belonged and where their descendants could thrive.

I carry my own past wherever I go. Who I am is the sum of all my life's experiences as well as the experiences of those who went before. My aching ankle, the voices of my children, the man I married, the job I have, the place I live. Voices I listened to. Voices I ignored. Choices I made, for good or for ill.  I am 58 years old. My past looms large behind me as my future shrinks.

I also carry my mistakes and the mistakes of those who went before and the indignities we have suffered as well as the indignities we inflicted, knowingly or unknowingly, on others. Financial risks that didn't pay off. Options not available due to class and gender and world events. Misunderstandings of culture. Misappropriation of lands. Part of my heritage. A legacy I carry forward. 

The past is all around me.

It cloaks me and protects me.

It gives me hope for tomorrow.

It is a burden I bear.

Just as my past led me to my present, so has our shared Canadian history led us to the nation we celebrate today. Knowing that history illuminates a way forward.  Hiding it blinds us. For generations we as a country suppressed the ugly parts of our past as we focused on the present. A present that was only fully open to some of us. Understanding our story and knowing our truths is important. Otherwise how do we navigate our way into the future? 

The Germans have a word. "Vergangenheitsbew√§ltigung". The attempt to come to terms with the actions of the past. Acknowledging the truth and its attending shame and guilt. Here in Canada, coming to an understanding of our own history is something we are just beginning. Here, we call it reconciliation. How do we, as Canadians, work towards reconciling the actions of our respected ancestors with the indignities offered to our first peoples?  How do we come to terms with that?  

History is not only what happened in the past. It's not just a list of dates and events. It's with us in our institutions and our laws and ideologies. It's with us in the faces of the homeless and the silence of the marginalized. As I understand the impact of my past on my future, so too do I hope my students understand that their histories and the history of this land matter. All of their histories. The good history and the bad history. The history of privilege and the history of oppression. All of their stories make up the story of Canada. We need to know these stories and know how they shape us in order to move forward together.

The past is with us always. 

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Agents of Change

Social Studies Lessons for Kenney Part 1

Whether it's teaching 5 year olds to be kind to one another or encouraging junior high kids to raise funds for charity or reminding 18 year olds to vote according to their principles, for decades Alberta’s teachers have encouraged kids to be actively involved as citizens in a democratic society. Any education system in a democratic nation promotes the idea that we need informed, thoughtful, active and contributing members in our society. 

If you don't want to take my word for it, take a look at the evidence which is found in Alberta’s Social Studies curriculum over the past 6 decades.

In 1947, the Department of Education in Alberta wrote “Society wants and needs good citizens.  It is the business of the Social Studies courses to help produce these good citizens, well-adjusted socially and well equipped mentally, citizens capable of thinking intelligently and determined to do their part in bringing about social progress.”

Following on the heels of World War II, Albertans knew firsthand what dictatorships and propaganda looked like, fully aware that “This is an age of propaganda fraught with pitfalls for the unwary, the ignorant, the unthinking and the mentally unawakened.” The Department of Education in a province governed by Social Credit Premier Ernest Manning was determined that schools would train critical thinkers who were equipped to separate fact from fiction and make decisions based on evidence, not emotions. Students who were committed to “social betterment”. Students who had “an appreciation of the worth and dignity of the individual and a desire to preserve the rights of minority groups and maintain justice for all.”

In 1970, under soon-to-be-defeated Social Credit leader Harry Strom, a new curriculum was unveiled “…with optimism about the nature of man and the efficacy of democratic ideals, the new social studies involves free and open inquiry into individual and social values that will serve the humanistic goals of education by offering students experience in living and not just preparation for living…students will deal not only with the “what is” but also with the “what ought to be” and will have the opportunity to make this world a more desirable place in which to live.”

By 1978, with Progressive Conservative Peter Lougheed as premier, the curriculum called for the development of students who are “sensitive to their human and natural environment, with intellectual independence, moral maturity, effective participants in community affairs” which by 1985 evolved to preparing “students for responsible participation in a changing world.” By 1990, under Progressive Conservative Premier Don Getty  the ultimate aim of education was “to develop the ability of the individual so that he might fulfill personal aspirations while making a positive contribution to society…including justice, fair play and fundamental rights, responsibilities and freedoms.”

Our current program of studies, implemented in 2005 under Progressive Conservative premier Ralph Klein reads “Social Studies develops the key values and attitudes, knowledge and understanding, and skills and processes necessary for students to become active and responsible citizens, engaged in the democratic process and aware of their capacity to affect change in their communities, societies and world.”

Yet today members of the opposition deride the current NDP government for suggesting that students should be "agents of change." Why? For the last 60 years, no matter what the ideology of the day, our education system has tried to teach kids to seek a better way forward-not just for themselves but also for society. Whether we call it “social betterment”, “progress”, ”the opportunity to make the world more desirable,” “making a positive contribution”, or “the capacity to affect change”, successive generations of educators in our province have advocated for students to work towards creating a better world for all. Recognizing that the status quo isn't good enough, and understanding that "To know and not to act is not to know," they encourage their students to play a part in making a better, fairer and more just world.

Education should give children knowledge about the world. It should help them think critically and creatively. It should give them confidence to follow their dreams. It should help break the cycle of poverty. It should show them the world for what it is, including the marvels that are worth preserving and the injustices they need to do something about while providing them with the abilities and skills to act.

I think of the hundreds of kids I have worked with over the years. Kids who are compassionate, decent human beings - great parents and active community volunteers. Scientists and sales people. Professionals and artists and journalists. Conservatives and Liberals and New Democrats and those with no political affiliation. Kids who are now adults who are making changes every day in their families, their communities, their workplaces and on the global stage.

As a parent and a teacher, I want my children to be empowered in their own lives and as global citizens, with the skills, attitudes and knowledge that will help them create a positive future for themselves and the planet. I want them to keep reaching and striving to make changes in their world. What that change looks like is up to them.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

How not to say goodbye

Here's a tip.

If someone in your organization is leaving after decades of loyal service, perhaps you can think of a better way to say "farewell" than stuffing some money and an unsigned generic greeting card into an envelope and tossing it on the staff room counter.

You know who you are.

Do better.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

This is who we are

Gale force winds and bitter snow.
Yet still we gather.
In our parkas and toques and mittens and scarves.
With our candles blowing out in the wind.
Because we are Canadians.

This is who we are.

Faces in the crowd
Men and women.
Children and seniors.
People of all colours and religions and orientations.
Huddled in the snow to bear witness.
To pray.
To tell our Muslim brothers and sisters

This is who we are.

The English teacher speaks.
"These are the names of those who died
The names I know so far
Azzeddine Soufiane, a butcher, a grocer, a father of three
Khaled Belkacemi, a university professor
Aboubaker Thabti, a father of two young children..."

A moment of silence in their names.

The imam speaks, his voice strong and clear and unafraid.
"Imagine you are prostrate before your Creator, 

Your face to the ground, asking for his mercy
That is when you die. When you are closest to God."

"Terrorism has no religion."

"Gandhi said
Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny."

"We must educate the ignorant. Invite strangers into our homes. Learn about each other."

A First Nations woman steps out of the crowd
“As a Treaty Eight person, I know about what it is like
Not to be allowed to practice your spirituality.
That happened to our people.
And I want to welcome you
We are all equal human beings
You have a home on Treaty Eight land.”

The MLA speaks
"We cannot deny that there is hatred among us.
Such a violent act of terror came from hate.
But there is something stronger than hate and fear.
Love and hope."

Another voice.
"It is time to educate the racists and the bigots.
It is time to speak out
It is time to stand up
It is time to remember there is strength in diversity."

When someone dies
People come together
To honour the dead
To find strength in community
To celebrate a life
This vigil
A time to remember
A time to stand up
A time to celebrate

This is who we are.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

From Shadow to Light

When you are kid, you often feel like you are living in your parents' shadow.

At least that is how I felt, growing up in a small town where my dad was the high school principal, alderman and respected community member and my mom was a teacher and a compulsive volunteer.

"Oh, you're George Hartford's daughter," people would say.  "Ah, I know your mom!" 

Even now I meet people who knew my parents years ago and hear stories about them.

My parents were leaders in their own way. When they would see a need, they would act. Maybe that is how they learned to live from their parents. Or maybe it was a consequence of being city-bred people who moved to a small town or maybe it was the result of growing up during the Depression or living through a world war.

They had high expectations for us, their four children. Not about what kind of marks we should get or what career path we should follow (although they certainly had suggestions we didn't comply with). They did not have expectations about the kind of wealth we should attain or the status we should achieve. Their expectations were about the kind of people we should become. The sense of obligation to honour those expectations was unspoken, but oh so very powerful.

Did we live up to their expectations?  That's something I will never know.  

But I do know their shadows still loom. The shadows are there when we go to places we visited together. I think of Mom when I am shopping. I think of Dad when there are workplace challenges.The shadows are dark when I do wrong. The shadows loom when I wonder what would Dad have done or what would Mom think.That's when the shadows no longer dominate but guide and support. I think of them both when there is big news in the world and when my kids do something extraordinary or when I have big decisions to make or when I feel sad. Their shadows loom over holidays and special days and dark days. That is when their shadows move from haunting me to enveloping me with warmth. 

I thought of my dad today when I learned that his good friend Burns had passed away. Burns or "Fuzz" and my dad had a long history. They fought together in World War II. They returned to Canada where they had families and served their communities.  They were alike in many ways, and though I did not know him well, I know he was a good and wise man who loved his family.

I know enough about Burns to know that his shadow will figure large in the lives of his two grown children and his grandchildren.

I hope for them that those shadows will gradually cease to be the sometimes dark shadows of memory.

I hope they will find, as I have, that those shadows have gradually turned to light. Light that illuminates a path through this uncertain and dark world. 

The light cast by good parents who have raised their children well.

Friday, 6 January 2017


This morning, I turn on the Christmas lights for the last time. I put the last of the Christmas cookies on my mom's star shaped cookie stand. I pour a coffee into my lovely new Christmas mug.  As I sit in the gentle glow of the old-school lights of our tree, I reflect on the season.

Today is Epiphany. In the Christian calendar, the day celebrates the arrival of the Magi and the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. 

Today would also have been my Dad's 94th birthday. 

In our house, Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season. 
My grandparent's Christmas table

I think back to the Christmases of my childhood, spent in my grandparents' house on their farm, a converted log cabin lovingly added to and renovated over the years. 

Christmas was waiting.

It was waiting for Christmas dinner. 

It was waiting for the huge table to be constructed by combining the ping-pong table and assorted other tables in the middle of the living room. It was waiting for it to be covered with white linen tablecloths, set with the best dishes. It was waiting for the silver to be polished. It was waiting for my grandfather to say grace before the 30-40 assembled relatives and neighbours began to feast. 

Me and my cousins
Christmas was the infamous little red kid's table in the other room. 

Christmas was waiting to open presents after the dishes and the tables were cleared away. 

Christmas was waiting to be old enough to read so you would have the honour of being allowed  distribute the gifts.

Later, Christmas was at my aunt's house in town, my aunt and cousins cooking and serving dinner. It was the living room floor awash in wrapping paper. Christmas was cousins, aunts, uncles-all laughing, children everywhere,

Still later, Christmas was my parents' big Tumbler Ridge house. 

In Tumbler Ridge
Christmas was waking up to see the delighted little faces peering over the balcony that overlooked the living room, basking in the glow of the tree lights. Christmas was hearing their whispers, "He came." 

It was waiting for my brother and sister to arrive so we could open our stockings. It was waiting for my mom to put the Christmas pudding on to steam and put the turkey in the over before we tackled the tree, so many presents it felt almost obscene.

Still later, the small Tumbler Ridge house and then my brother's Victoria house filled with siblings and parents and love.

And now, my parents gone, my siblings far away, my own kids make the journey back home. Now, just the five of us gathered round the tree. 

Our Christmas filled with ghosts of the past.

Epiphany is a time to bless the home to protect us from evil for the coming year. The blessing represents the hospitality offered to the wise men. It invites God's presence into the home for the coming year. 

We will pack away our Christmas tree and our Christmas dishes and our Christmas decorations. My kids will return to their homes. And we will wait for another Christmas. 

An epiphany can also be a feeling. A sudden and rare experience. An enlightening understanding that gives us a new perspective. My epiphany, despite the sadness I feel as I deeply miss those no longer with us, is my realization that these ghosts are not to be mourned. They have blessed us with their presence and their memories. No matter what the configuration of people attending our Christmas festivities, we are truly blessed by generations of love. May their blessings continue to shine over us.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Of Dogs and Children

Years ago my former sister-in-law posed the question, "Why do people have dogs?"

Why indeed.
Me, Dad and Pabby
Our first dog was Pabby, rescued by my grandmother from a box on the side of a country road. My other grandmother called Pabby a "borderline collie"- some kind of cross between a border collie and a spaniel.  In my parents' photos, Pabby paces protectively between me and the lake or the river or whatever other possibly dangerous situation my parents had placed me in.

Later on, we adopted Leslie, a greyhound who had been abandoned in the campsite across from the Chisholm fire tower.  I only heard Leslie bark twice, both times when she thought the family was being threatened. Leslie loved little kids. They could crawl all over her and she would just lie there and take it.
After we got married, we had Emily, a loyal cocker whose biggest flaw was that she loved everyone equally. When we lived in Viking, the neighbour lady hated dogs and struck Emily with her purse. Undeterred, Emily continued to approach strangers with the idea "the only reason you don't like me is that you don't know me well enough."  Not long after we got Emily, our first child was born. When the baby cried, Emily tossed her ball into the bassinet as if to say "This makes me happy, you try it." We used to put the baby in her Jolly Jumper in the doorway between the kitchen and living room. We would throw Emily's ball through the doorway and Emily would charge past, setting baby spinning. That was the first time we heard our baby laughter. Uninhibited, deep and unexpected laughter-the kind only babies make.
Russell at the lake

After Emily, we got Russell, the smartest dog I have ever known. Companionable, curious and always wanting to learn; he had a particular affection for children and tore up both the interior of the van and more than one windowsill trying to get at some children to play with them. I am sure he thought of himself as a child.

For a time, we had a day-home operating next door.  We cut a hole in the fence and Russell would drop his ball through the hole and the kids would throw it back at him. When we went for a walk, these same day-home kids would ask us if we were Russell's mommy and daddy. For years we met parents who asked us how Russell was doing.

The kids taught him tricks and hosted birthday parties for him and gave him Christmas presents, which he cleverly found and unwrapped well before Christmas every year. He slept outside my daughter's door, watchful and protective. 

A year after we got Russell, we also got Anna, an inbred Jack Russell who came from a low rent puppy mill on the poorest farm I have ever seen.  Anna was not too smart. But she was loyal and loving and had the best sense of humour. She was particularly attached to our youngest and thought up endless ways to taunt him into playing with her.

My husband's family always had a dog. Taffy was the first. In almost every photo, there is Taffy. At the skating rink. On the sled hill. Sitting at the picnic table in a campground. Taffy was followed by poodles Dusky, Gatsby and Topper. 

In the in-law's house, the family dog was revered to the point one Christmas my father-in-law was dispatched to London Drugs on Christmas morning to get the dog a Barbie because "it's not fair that the girls have dolls and Gatsby doesn't."

After Anna and Russell died, we did not hesitate to get more dogs even though we no longer have kids at home. Sometimes we think we are crazy. Why do we have dogs?  They are a hassle. You have to clean up after them. They always want in or out. They track in dirt. They need to be bathed. You need to book dog friendly hotels and make arrangements when you travel. Why? Why have dogs?

Dogs never judge you. They don't care what political party you belong to or what race you are or what your status in life is or how much money you make. They love you unconditionally. Dogs are loyal. They don't abandon you because they disagree with you. They don't even stop loving you when you are mean to them. Dogs are unique. It's an adventure finding out what their personalities are and discovering what their talents will be. Dogs make you get outside yourself when you are feeling down. They remind you that the world isn't just about you. Dogs care about how you are feeling. Dogs never lie. They are just who they are. Dogs love life. Your smallest word of praise makes them happy beyond words. If you give them their freedom, their joy knows no bounds. And if you have treated them right, they always come back. Because they love you. Kind of like your children, when you think about it

Why have dogs?
Why indeed.

Finian and Pippa

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

How Can We Live Well Together

What is the nature of Social Studies?

I have found myself asking that question over and over again as a Social Studies teacher.

What is it we want students to KNOW?
Who is it we want them to BE?
How do we want them to LIVE?

If we could distill the key idea of what we want from a Social Studies education, is there one sentence that encapsulates it all?

What resonates for me? 
Social Studies is learning how we live well together.
If we could break that down further, would it cover everything the future citizens of our planet need to know? 

Who am "I"? 

  • "I" am an individual, with unique characteristics and identity and beliefs and values and skills. But "I" am not alone. "I" am also a part of "we".

Who are "we"? 
  • "We" are families and communities and cultural groups and ethnicities living on farms and in the country and in small towns and cities and nations and refugee camps. "We" are all citizens of this planet.

What does it mean to live well?

  • Living well is quality of life and physical health and mental health and spiritual health and standard of living and a sense of purpose and good relationships and stewardship for the land that sustains us.

What does it mean to live well together

  • The "social" part of Social Studies is the hard part. Over the course of history, people have come up with many different ways of living and organizing ourselves socially, politically, and economically. What have societies done in the past that allowed them to live well together?  What have they done that achieved the opposite? What can we learn from the stories of the past that can help us move forward, past egregious errors and injustices, into a brighter tomorrow? For our global society to evolve, it must be fueled by people with creativity, hopefulness, innovation, critical thought, open-mindedness and empathy.

How do we live well together?
Sadly, sometimes, we just don't.

Following Brexit and the election of Trump and the rise of Le Pen, it seems that the lesson some people have learned is simply that we cannot live well together.  

As a Canadian, I think that is wrong. 
We can live well together. 
We do live well together. 

Jason Kenney accuses teachers and the education system of "social engineering". But really, isn't that what our education system is supposed to do?  Engineer the world we want?  And that is the world we want. A world where we can ALL live well together. 

Friday, 18 November 2016

better left unsaid

My co-worker Jamie sent me a "Facebook Memory" dating back to when she started her current teaching job. We had a chuckle about what she wrote. And it reminded me of my diary from my first days of teaching-so embarrassing it's hard to read. "Let me guess," said Jamie.  "You were going to change the world." "Worse," says I. So I went back to the old diary. Still shame-inducing. But I wondered if others might be interested in reading about the dreams and ambitions of a teacher just starting her career. And I wondered if others beginning their teaching journey might share some of my feelings. And maybe if I typed out an edited version, it would look better in black and white instead of turquoise ink in a Hobbit's Travels journal. (Turns out, it doesn't) 

So at risk of my own intense humiliation, here are some excerpts.

Sept 2 1980

I hope this is going to be a good book, because it's going to be a book about teaching-a diary of my first year as Miss Hartford, Teacher-Librarian.

The weekend before I started my job, I drove down to the family cabin. As I looked into the sunset I found myself wanted to tell someone about my real objectives in teaching- not the things you say in a job interview, not the things you say to your closest friends- the things you scarcely even admit to yourself.

I want to open their eyes to sunsets, to have them see and feel fireworks, and hear a baby's first cry, and suffer the pain and joy of loving and losing; to have them weep over death and sorrow; to explode with outrage at injustice; to scream for fairness and become sick with man's own depravity and inhumanity.  

I want to be the one to make them reach inside themselves and rediscover their emotions, their beliefs, their morals and their senses.  I want to be the one who guides them into an awareness of their own incredible value and potential. I want them to read and write and explore the age old beauties and perfections and questions of existence.  I want them to fight for their beliefs; I want them to explain their hearts; to exclaim with wonder and recognition and awe with what they have found.  So many things I want for these nameless, faceless masses. And I wondered:

Can a person do all of these things?
Can a teacher do all these things?
Can an English teacher?
Can I?
And if not a person, a teacher-me-then who?

Because I believe with all my heart they need to be done.


Imagine my surprise on my first day of school when I came back after coffee break to find none other than THE Henry Petkau, superintendent of schools, in my library!  He was very nice and told me to contact him if I ever needed anything.  (I learned later that every year on the first day of school he tried to visit every school in the county and say hello to every teacher.)

Sept 4

Oh my. After re-evaluating my job I've decided I will need to be BIONIC. Yesterday G____ came in to tell me that in addition to being teacher librarian, I would be teaching a grade nine class and a grade 7 option and two junior high options in library science! I was definitely surprised!  Last class of the day we had the junior high kids fill out their option forms.  I had the 9Bs.  I guess I seemed slack or hilarious or something because they basically all signed up for library science.  But after school we sorted out the forms and the other teachers just weeded the jerks out of my class and put them all in Rocket Science!

Sept 12

I'm learning to hang on to the rewards that come few and far between, like the Bio 30 girl who thanked me for helping her find books on cancer or the excitement of the grade sevens when they learned they could keep books out for TWO WHOLE WEEKS! Mostly I am finding that it's going to take time to get this library into the kind of order and structure I crave. I hate waiting without a structure and a routine and an ordered pattern. And I'm being forced to learn that I can't do it all myself. I'm learning I have to delegate some of this stuff. And I'm nervous that I am going to offend the staff's precious memories of my superlative predecessor. She's a tough act to follow. 

Sept 15

So...I survived the two weeks. Now the going gets rough.

Today I wondered if really matters, what I teach, what I do.  Can I ever hope to reach them? Even one of them? Aren't there better paths of reaching them? Helping the ones that need help the most? Right now I would just be happy if I could just make them think! Today I felt like a jailer holding them back from their real world why shouldn't we make it real for them?  So I re-think my plans and objectives with the meager hope that I can relate the world of books to the mind of the adolescent! Somewhere there has to be a clue! Some trick, some hint.

And yet, can it ever be enough? Am I real to them? I feel helpless and hopeless, as if it's never enough.

I promise not to be a jailer of minds or spirits. I promise to try to change "schooling" for my kids at least, into an open door, a world of choice-instead of a prison, locked doors, a dead end street.

Oct 17

I feel like I'm not doing anything really important. I guess I'm not the kind of person to make a powerful impression on young minds.  But maybe, just maybe, I can instill a little trust, a little belief, a little humanity.

People say I'm a sucker:naive and such. But I think that won't change. I just wish I could do MORE. Some day, I tell myself, some day I'll reach someone.

November 16

The hardest lesson I'm learning is that I'll never really be their friend. No matter what, I'm always the teacher:they're always the kids. And its the moments when I realize this that are the hardest to take.  I wish we didn't have these barriers. I wish we could be equal and learn from each other.  I try so hard- and yet I have to keep telling myself not to look for friendships, for confidantes, for sympathy, empathy, anything. I have to remind myself I am not their sister, their mother, their friend.  My only relationship is teacher to student. Maybe some day I'll convince myself that I belong where I am-not in the class beside them as a fellow human being like I wish to be.

Jan 20

I started this entry wanting to bitch about the administration-how they laugh at what I want. How they won't fight for what I need. - how I feel like I am talking to a wall when I ask for new magazine boxes or new curtains or an actual classroom to teach in-stupid, simple, necessary things they can't or won't let me have. (I learned later from my superlative predecessor that she-in a fit of anger over a battle about replacing the above-mentioned ancient curtains- had torn them down, carried them into the principal's office and thrown them in a heap at his feet. After she moved to another school, he had them dry-cleaned and hung back up in the library. It took me another 5 years to get them replaced.)

I've got to hang on to what I believe, to keep on believing that my philosophy, my way is right and theirs is wrong. No matter what!  What I am doing is right, my opinion has value, and screw the rest of them!

I think I'm doing good things!

May 6

There are so many things I think they should know. And I have no right to intrude on their personal lives.  Do I have any business telling them what to hold onto? What to throw away?  They are living their lives and at times I see how maybe I could help them-advise them-but who am I? I am not of them. I am apart from them and I always will be.  Still I want to make a difference for them. Isn't that why I'm here? Aren't I supposed to be enabling them to know themselves, to know the world, helping them cope? Dammit, more than COPE.  Be happy!! Love life!  Know they are worth something! I want them to believe in themselves-to believe they matter and that they can go somewhere, be someone.

...who am I kidding? What can I do? But what would I do if I didn't try? Where would I be right now?

Me and my teaching friends, about to begin our careers!
SELAC, April 1980, Banff Springs Hotel.