Tuesday, 24 June 2014

You've Only Just Begun

It's that time of year, students. The time of year when your dad will get misty eyed watching his little princess, suddenly mature and beautiful. When your mom will beam with pride at the tall young man you have become, even though in her heart you will always be the little boy who makes  her smile. Yes, it is your graduation. And as you take the stage to receive your diploma, behind your parents' tears and smiles, we wonder where your life's journey will take you as you make your first faltering adult steps.

Yes, it's your high school graduation. Across the land, banquet halls, gyms and community centres are unrecognizable beneath swathes of streamers and rosettes, splendid backdrops, aromatic with fresh flowers, glittering with candles and mirror balls. So many decisions, so much work has been done to bring you to this day. Grad colours? Theme? Song? Guest speaker? Invitations to local dignitaries? Diplomas? What to serve at the banquet? How many tickets to allow? Decorations? Class gift? Awards? Scholarships? Location for group photo? Fund raising? Fall grad, full grad, spring grad, safe grad, dry grad? 

Teaching colleagues and parents, I ask you-what do you remember about your own commencement? The loser escort who threw up on your shoes? The dress you bought in another city only to find another girl identically clad? The valedictorian who reiterated every cliché in the book? The hopeful youngster- suit rented, girl invited, flowers ordered, grandparents en route-saying "What do you mean, I need phys. ed. to graduate?"

I nearly missed my own grad when my school camping group got snowed in off a back road and no one knew where we were. The theme song at gold old South Peace Senior Secondary was Diana Ross’s "Do you Know Where You're Going To?” My escort wore a polyester leisure suit and fell asleep at the party. Three girls got engaged, two others were hugely pregnant. Nobody laughed at my class prophesy. And yes, my parents were misty eyed and proud.

Me and my friend Teresa on our graduation day.
Grad was simpler then. Maybe life was simpler too. You finished high school or didn't, got a job or didn't, went to university or didn't.  You may not have known where you were going to, but the world waited. Life, like grad, is more complicated for the kids of today. But the world will wait for them too.
But today is not about me.  It's about you, high school graduates.  Webster's defines grad as the act of receiving a diploma, but it's also the official statement that you have come to the end of your publicly funded education.  Now you have received that gift, what will you do with it? Because today is the first day of the rest of your lives. Every journey begins with the first step. Follow your passions and never lose sight of your dreams. The world is in your hands.

You've only just begun.


Original dust jacket of the novel
When I was eleven our class read Madeleine L'Engle's novel A Wrinkle in Time. It's the first novel of a sci-fi trilogy in which a kid gets trapped in fold in the space-time continuum, which is referred to as tesseract- a fourth dimension in geometry. Our teacher asked "If there was another dimension, how might beings communicate?" The idea of another dimension threw me. Another dimension? Dimensions that could exist alongside us that we can't see or know? Say WHAT?  And what was she getting at with that question? It seemed like something just on the edge of being knowable. I couldn't reach it. But I couldn't have no answer. She expected me to have an answer. I always had an answer. I guessed wildly. "Music?" I was sure I was wrong. Music isn't a language! The other kids said things like French and Spanish. I knew that if I was wrong, at least I wasn't as wrong as they were.

Flash forward to today. I have three adult children. They can speak a bit of French. They know the language of music. And they know another language as well.  One is a PhD candidate in biotechnology at Cambridge. One is a geophysics summer student working with a 1.8 million dollar data set. The third is in computer science. They speak the language of science. They have understandings in another dimension, a dimension I was unable to enter.

When my kids get together they talk about math and physics and chemistry. They have real conversations about these things. They tell jokes about these things. I did not know these things could be be discussed, especially not with enthusiasm, humour and passion. When I listen to my kids talk, I feel as if I am the person in the fourth dimension, trapped in my own tesseract.

How did my children enter this other dimension? Where did they learn the language of science? They did not learn it from their parents. They learned it from their teachers, teachers with knowledge. Teachers with  passion for their subject. Something about what they taught triggered something in my children, encouraging them to push on and learn and grow and speak that other language, a language that is not their mother tongue. My children's teachers showed them that other dimension I still do not grasp- ideas that for me have always felt beyond my ability to comprehend.

Would these teachers have been considered "excellent? They were traditional in their approach. They used textbooks and the blackboard and lectures and experiments and sometimes even worksheets. They had higher than average participation rates and lower than average diploma marks. Yet despite their lack of the inquiry approach, their limited implementation of technology, or failure to be "architects of learning," many of their students are engineers, doctors, geologists and geophysicists. Their former students have an understanding of that other world thanks to their instruction.

When Madeleine L'Engle wrote A Wrinkle in Time, she was reading quantum physics. She made the realm of science the setting for a children's novel. She worked to make the unknowable knowable. And she had a hell of a time getting published. My teacher opened my mind to the possibility of other dimensions of knowledge by pushing me to think.  I may never understand quantum physics, but I did learn that there are other dimensions inhabited by others that may be unknowable to me. And I want to thank my children's teachers for opening their minds to that other world.

Monday, 23 June 2014

It All Comes Down to This

Since the dawn of man/In today’s society/In the world today/Since time began/In our confusing world/Historically we have seen the... struggle between the rich and the poor/the bourgeoisie and the proletariat/the powerful and the exploited. From...feudal times/the days of the Agricultural/Industrial/French/American/Orange/Velvet Revolution until today we have been engaged in the seemingly never-ending quest to resolve this ideological issue, and there are many...ideas/theories/historical proof/current events that will support my point. This struggle leads us to examine the issue question so clearly identified in the source. Through my work in this position paper I will clearly and convincingly state my position on this challenging topic.

Evidence to support my position comes from the day when the Founding Fathers wrote the...Declaration of the Rights of Man/Charter of Rights and Freedoms/Declaration of Independence/Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man/Magna Carta/BNA Act/Ten Commandments they laid down an ideological foundation that can be clearly placed on the right-left continuum.  This work laid down the background for a whole new way of thinking that had not been thought of until it was, and the concepts were further elaborated upon in the seminal novel...
Mein Kampf/Das Kapital/The Wealth of Nations/Origin of the Species by...Charles Darwin/Karl Marx/ Adolf Hitler/Adam Smith/John Smith/Adam West/John Hancock/Dave Hancock/Thomas Jefferson/Theodore Roosevelt/Franklin Roosevelt who provided us with the idea of the...invisible/invincible hand/trickledown effect/scientific socialism/Social Darwinism/survival of the fittest. This important theory shows unmistakably that the perspective identified in the source has great validity both in the past and for today’s world.

Furthermore/in addition/as well/not to discount the fact that back in the day when the...right/left winged/fascist-communist/totalitarian/authoritarian/collectivist Stalin/Hitler/George Bush/Pol Pot/Ho Chi Minh/Mao Zedong/The Tsar II/Louis XVI invaded… Germany/Russia/Poland/South Vietnam/Palestine/Iraq/Afghanistan/Cambodia/France we could see a conflict developing that would have far reaching influences on the development of today’s...classical/modern/capitalist/democratic socialist/liberal economy and its fundamental rights and freedoms.

Further evidence to support my view comes from the ideas of the economic theories devised by the great...physiocrat/economic philosopher/Enlightenment thinker...JJ Rousseau/Edmund Burke/JS Mill/John Locke/Hobbes/Montesquieu/Voltaire...whose ideas of the...fundamental good/evil innate in man/man’s inherent ability/inability to reason gave rise to the...capitalist/liberal/liberalist/libertarian views that are dominant in our society today. In economic terms we can turn to the ideas of...Vladmir Lenin/Carroll Marx/Karl Marx/Josef Stalin/JM Keynes/Milton/Thomas Friedman/FA Hayek whose concepts of the...invisible hand/invincible hand/class struggle/monetarism/fiscal policy/government intervention presented a response to the ideas that had been unsuccessfully implemented in the past.

Finally/in conclusion/when all is said and done/at the end of the day/in the final analysis… I believe that the...evidence/examples/reasons/logic/explanations/details/theories that I have provided...conclusively/somewhat/to an extent support the position I have...taken/hinted at/suggested. To restate my view, society should definitely...embrace/reject/ignore the ideological position reflected in the source like a dear old aunt one hasn't seen in years, with open arms, caution, and a grain of salt.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Roots and Branches

Roots and Branches

When I was a little kid I remember sitting down with my granddad to look at a tiny toy dresser that he had given me for my dollhouse.  “Just imagine,” he said, between puffs on his pipe.  “This was made by a little Chinaman, sitting in a dark and smoky room there in Hong Kong, gluing the little pieces together by hand.  Every day, just gluing these little pieces together for pennies.”  Together we marveled at the time and effort the little “Chinaman” had put in to making this exquisite piece of furniture.  Together we wondered about his world, so far away. 

My grandfather George Martin
My grandfather came to Canada from England as an orphan.  Working for the Bank of Commerce, he met and married my grandmother, a fifth generation Canadian who had recently arrived to pioneer in the Peace country.   As they left behind their known worlds for their grand adventure, globalization and pluralism were powerful forces in their lives, even if they were not words in their vocabulary.

My grandmother Marion McNaught

In World War I, granddad reached the Front, from which he sent along a steady stream of post cards and letters describing the people and way of life he found.  My grandmother soon journeyed across the Atlantic to be closer to him, working in a munitions plant outside of London.  In retirement, granddad worked to relieve bank managers in the Far North, sending home many letters describing what he found there.  To her dying day, my grandmother considered pieces of land on which a person could still homestead. 

My grandparents’ legacy has never been lost on me. My husband and I met in Shanghai and have since dragged our kids through North, South and Central America, Europe and Asia.  As I walked the streets of Hong Kong with my own small children, I wondered about that Chinese labourer, sitting in his dark workroom.   His reality was not so different than the one Grandad and I envisioned.

How do you teach a child empathy?  My grandfather imagined with me the life of a man whose days were spent gluing together children’s toys for a meager living. Together, Grandad and I explored a foreign territory that was at once strange and enchanting, yet one to which we were deeply connected. Even though he did not realize the term “Chinaman” was less somehow acceptable than the term “Englishman,” his respect for other cultures was readily apparent.  Even though he had never heard the term “global citizenship,” he understood that it entails both an appreciation of the life-enriching power of diversity and outrage at disparity. I only hope I have been able to do the same for my own children and for my students. 

Originally published as "How do you teach empathy to a child?" 06/04/2010 in ATA News Moot Points.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Per ardua ad astra

 For my dad, on D-Day

My dad, George Hartford
On D-Day 70 years ago my dad was 21 years old, just a little older than his grandson Hart is today. As part of Operation Overlord, Dad piloted his Lancaster bomber "S for Smitty" over the skies of Normandy, dropping bombs on German coastal defenses, protecting the troops about to land on the beaches below. Among the 14,000 he protected on Juno Beach that day was a man he had never met, medic Sam Martin, a man who would become my uncle. Dad and Uncle Sam and their fellow young Canadians helped turn the tide of the war, leading to the liberation of Europe and the defeat of fascism.

340 Canadian soldiers died on D-Day. Nearly 2,000 Canadians died in the invasion of Normandy. They lie buried not far away in Beny-sur-Mer cemetary. A few years ago, together with my husband and three kids, I visited those quiet graves. It was humbling to walk among the tombstones, reading the epitaphs. We did not say a word. Because what is there to say in the presence of such loss and sacrifice? Would we have been so bold, so selfless, so daring? The unspeakable gratitude for what they provided for future generations hung heavily upon us. 

When the crew of S for Smitty returned to Canada, they were not treated as heroes, nor did they think of themselves as such. My dad was loathe to wear his medals and rarely did he talk about the war. He knew his actions led to peace. He also knew that war causes civilian deaths and he made his peace with that. I know the war shaped those young men in ways I can never understand. 

My dad, known as Ginge to his crew, went on to become an engineer, teacher, school principal, healthcare administrator, mayor, volunteer, dad and granddad. His navigator Doug Johnston became comptroller of McGill University and father to three beautiful girls. McGill offers a scholarship in his name. Bomb aimer Burns or "Fuzz" Foster was a pharmacist with two kids. Dad and his crew maintained contact throughout their lives and I still get emails from Burns and his son Doug. When my dad found his career as an engineer unfulfilling, he wrote to Doug, "Navigator, chart me a course." Doug suggested education and that is where dad spent the bulk of his working life. 

Dad, Doug and Burns were Canada's finest. They along with 1.1 million Canadians risked their lives and then came home and helped build the Canada we love today, with its human rights, free healthcare, first rate education system and opportunities for all. 

I look at today's youth and I wonder who among them would have the courage of those young men. Who would be willing to risk their own lives to preserve the way of life they take for granted? But then I look at my dad's eight grandchildren and I know we will be in good hands. He helped build their country to be a place that is worth fighting for.

Per Ardua Ad Astra: Through Adversity to the Stars
Motto of the Royal Airforce

Burns Foster, Doug Johnston, George Hartford
Paul Piotrowsky, Sig Teit 
The aircrew.
Back row left to right (Unknown, Dick, Wilf, SIg, Dad, Pete, Smitty (he is the boss of the kite), Herb, Pat
Front row Phil (Engine Chief), Doug, Ted,Hank, Johnny, Fuzz
From Dad's writing on the back :How do you like our girl? She never complains of the cold either. Each bomb on the "LOVE" is one trip. We on about 20 of them. Altogether I did 40 and the rest 38.
The ground crew
 The air crew of S for Smitty