Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Spirit of Christmas

Where would Christmas be without traditions? Our lives revolve around little customs and rituals that have evolved through the years, like decorating gingerbread houses, skating parties with Santa, and -you know what I'm going to say- the ever-popular and much maligned "Christmas concert." Perhaps as you are reading this you are heaving a sigh of relief because yours is over for another year, or cursing at the very thought of another class of tiny tots holding up construction paper letters to the glare of a thousand flashes and the hum of a hundred video cameras.

Christmas concert memories from my teaching days have all blurred together, except for one, the concert held in the small northern community where we lived many years ago.

"It's always been a tradition for our school to host a Christmas concert," our principal told us. "The community expects it, and I guarantee you will see parents there who would never attend interviews or meet-the-teacher-night. A few years ago we put on a musical, `The Littlest Angel.' We held auditions and practiced after school. Actually, I directed it. It was great. Having one school event is hard work, but it frees up class time for students who need extra help. Of course, being principal and all, I don't have time to direct it myself, but think about it."

After the staff unanimously turned this idea down in two seconds, we decided to go with the usual format. For the kindergartens and grade ones, it was easy. Does it really matter what they do? Who can resist thirty little ones in their Christmas finery, up on stage for the first time? The grade two-three class got their hands on a super musical about Santa and his snowmobile, which they performed with a beautiful wooden skidoo built by one of the dads. The grade three-fours did some skits they wrote themselves, and the five-sixes sang a couple of carols with their classroom assistant, a talented local musician.

But what was I to do? The seven-eight-nines thought the whole concept of a concert too juvenile for words. "Can't we just set up the chairs and pull the curtain open and closed?" One suggested. "We'll serve refreshments," another offered. "Do we have to?" In their own adolescent way, I knew they wanted to be a part of the evening, but they just couldn't figure out how. As the day of the concert drew frighteningly nearer, I tried to get creative. "You could write your own play about what Christmas in the north is like?" No way. "How about an air band with some contemporary holiday music?" Well, way. "What if you read and acted out `The Night Before Christmas'?" Forget it. "Okay, break into small groups and brainstorm your own ideas. But we have to put something on."

Imagine my astonishment when the final decision was handed down. "We want to read the story of Christmas from the Bible and act it out." This from a bunch of 12-18 year olds whose behaviour had caused the local nuns to cancel their religious instruction class? This from the group of wild and rebellious young offenders who had named their class `The Exterminators'? The Christmas story?

And so it was that the next week of afternoons were spent in a frenzy of tempera and tinsel. Helen and Susan painted brilliant backdrops in the style of Ted Harrison, Lorraine and others prepared their angel wings, Curtis practiced his humble bow as a wise man and Eddy and Eugene sorted through tea towels and rummaged for bathrobes befitting a native shepherd. Myra, a grade seven who had startling just burst into womanhood, rehearsed her lines- and Cindy volunteered to open and close the curtains.

The concert itself was bedlam. The classroom rang with last minute threats to back out by the principal players, screams that halos were misplaced, the baby for the manger couldn't be found, and where was Myra?

The community turned out in full force to watch, although the adults in the audience could have used a few lessons in concert hall etiquette. Dads wandered out for a smoke in the middle of songs, aunties gossiped with other aunties, moms visited the bathroom and shouted at their children at inappropriate times, but the kids were perfect. They shone with a glow more perfect than anything the makeshift spotlights could provide.

The next year, there was a new principal. In his wisdom he decided that given the chaos of the previous concert, the school would not host another. The stressed out staff did not protest. I never found out what the people in the community thought, and maybe they didn't care, but I know the kids missed their concert. They seemed to be the only ones who knew what it was all about.

Originally published in the ATA News, December 10 1997.

Of Yoga Pants and Ideologies

So I have this activity in Social 30-1.

I ask kids to go to this website called and enter the term "ideology" and see what comes up.  Spezify uses some kind of algorithm to search certain areas of the web comes up with a visual display of images, quotes, websites and videos around your term.  

It's kind of an interesting activity as many different things come up and no two kids get exactly the same result.  You might get a meme of Will Smith, the cover of a textbook about Chairman Mao, or a thought provoking quotation or a beautiful photo. It gets students thinking out of the box or so I hope.

I've had this activity in my online course for a few years. I never get any comments on it. Then a few days ago a kid emailed me and said "I don't get the point of this spezify thing. I did it and all I got was pictures of yoga pants. That is not helpful to my thinking."  So I tried the thing and it worked normally. But I figured something was up, dug around a bit and sure enough if lululemon doesn't have yoga pants called "ideology." Five star yoga pants no less.

What's the connection between ideology and yoga pants? Clever branding is what I am sure the genius marketers at lululemon think.  I mean, how cool are ideologies? They can imply that yoga (in expensive pants) is the core of your belief system.Core values that influence the political and economic system you believe in. And if their consumers have no clue what an ideology is, by co-opting the term maybe they will seem politically aware.

I wonder if Rachel Notley wears ideology yoga pants as part of her Sunday workout?  Or does she wear something union made? And when she runs, do her body guards go with her?

Spezify "Rachel Notley" and see what comes up. Ugliness that make me ashamed to be an Albertan. Ugliness that reminds me Rachel was not wrong when she said Alberta is "the embarrassing cousin no one wants to talk about."  She might have been referring to Alberta's record on the environment, but with every word and every meme produced by Alberta's Wildrose supporters, I am reminded that Albertans have plenty to be ashamed of.

Ideologies are not pretty things. No matter what pants they are wearing.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Land of the Free

When I was a kid, my brothers and sister and I spent a lot of time on our grandparents' farm.

One of our favourite things to do was play in the granary full of canola, or rapeseed as we called it then. We would climb up the homemade ladder on the outside of the wooden building, climbing far over our own heads, jumping into the pile of shiny little black seeds. We would see how far down we could wiggle and still pull ourselves out again.  It was a ton of fun. We didn't think of the danger. Every now and then Granddad would say, "You kids aren't playing in the rapeseed, are you?"  "No," we would say. Thinking we weren't supposed to be in there because we might reduce the quality of his harvest.

So when I heard about the three little girls who were killed, it was chilling. I knew that could have been me slipping down under the seeds, unable to pull myself up. My brothers following in a desperate attempt to save me, perishing in the same way, suffocating under all those little black seeds.

We never thought of the farm as dangerous. It was home. It was familiar. We collected eggs and fed chickens and found the barn cats and their kittens. We leaped from the hay loft. We climbed as high as we could on the stacks of hay bales. Once a mouse ran up the inside of my brother's pants and that was hilarious. We wandered around the cows and horses. Swam in the river. Played on the old tractor and in pickup truck.  Dressed up in old clothes. Picked wild strawberries and saskatoons. Slept overnight in the old bunkhouse, loading up the airtight heater to the point it glowed red. It was a place where we were free.

My grandfather
My parents and grandparents were not risk-takers. They were not in any way casual in the way they raised us. We were warned about certain things. We learned a healthy respect for machinery. We knew which animals to avoid. We weren't allowed to swim unsupervised until we reached a certain skill level. We had a healthy fear of crossing the highway where my grandmother herself died. So I understand when people say they are angry about Bill 6. I really do. I understand resenting any implication that farm parents don't teach their children safety skills. The family farm is their home and they believe they and their employees and their kids are safe. They don't want anyone setting safety standards for them, any more than I would want someone telling me how to store my kitchen knives or the propane for my barbecue.

But the facts are the facts. As idyllic as farm life may seem, a farm is also a work-site. It contains far more dangers than a house. Should we romanticize a way of life that includes death and injury without recourse for the victims? Five children died on family farms last year. The three girls in the canola. A ten year old boy driving a forklift. These children were not safe.  They were denied the opportunity to continue the way of life their parents hold dear.

In high school Social Studies we look at many issues when it comes to liberty.

We look at the degree to which we should sacrifice individual rights and freedoms for security. We give up our individual right to drive as fast as we can or drive while impaired to ensure traffic safety. We give up our right to carry a pair of scissors onto a plane for public security. We give up our right to smoke in a public place so others will be free from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke. We give up privacy every time a CCTV camera is focused our way. It's part of living in a civilized society where the rights of the community take precedence over the freedoms of a few.

We also look at positive and negative freedoms. Freedom from and freedom to. The owner of a family farm may want freedom from government interference. But an employee or a child deserves the freedom to be safe. The freedom to say no when asked to perform dangerous tasks. The freedom to financial security if an accident occurs. The freedom to grow up.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

The places in between

I'm supposed to teach my students "historical thinking skills."  I'm not 100% sure what that means. I know it doesn't mean memorizing facts from the past. It's more about understanding how the past influenced the present, cause and effect, intended and unintended consequences, contextualizing events, worldviews, who benefited and who gained, and trying to understand the world through the eyes of those who went before.

As with a lot of my teaching, if you can call what I do that, I hope students will find that there is very little black and white in history, just as there is very little today that is clearly 100% right or wrong. Globalization, nationalization and ideologies all have their reasons and their varying impacts on the worlds' peoples, for good or ill.

The Industrial Revolution, for instance. Child labour, atrocious working conditions, terrible living conditions. The end of the feudal system. The end of cottage industries. Urbanization. Increasing employment. The beginnings of organized labour. Public education. Universal suffrage. Human rights.

Stuff gets lost along the way of history and "progress"- whatever that means. Other stuff is gained. The world is always changing and we change with it.
And that brings me to Madagascar.
It is a dreadfully poor place, statistically and in almost every visible way. Poverty is all around you. Malnutrition. Stunting. Village after village made of bricks or sticks. Mile after mile where you don't see even one manufactured product, not even a tarp to protect you from the sun or the wind. Women scrubbing their garments in the river and spreading them to dry on stubble-covered hillsides.People pulling plows by hand. Shops whose sole product is a thermos of coffee and a glass to drink it from.
In a way, it is like stepping back into history, into a medieval era before mechanization and technology and the mass production of goods.  And you, as a wealthy first world tourist, ride by in your air-conditioned SUV time machine, watching how people used to live, back in the dark ages.

The poverty you see is not the result of any one historical event. It may be the result of colonialism, economic imperialism, tribalism and corrupt political systems. One thing you know for sure is, it's not the result of laziness.
Here you see barefoot men running as fast as they can pulling "pousse pousses" -a fancy name for a rickshaw, a device that has been banned in many countries. The men run because if they don't get you to you destination faster than you could by walking, why would you hire them?  And you ask yourself, "Should I hire a pousse pousse?" Because it seems so wrong to be pulled from place to place by a barefoot man when you could just as easily walk. But if you don't hire the pousse pousse, who will? Will the man and his family starve? Because what other labour is there to do?

Here you will children walking along rural and city roads, balancing water jugs on their heads because there is no running water in their homes. Indeed, even most health clinics do not have potable water. You see women and children balancing impossibly huge bags of charcoal. They haul these to their homes or to the market to sell.  Children shouldn't have to work this hard.  But if they don't, where will the heat come from for their mothers to heat their homes and cook their meals?

Here you see the $7 billion Ambatovy mine, a joint venture, 40% owned by Canada's Sherritt along with other partners. It is the largest single employer in the country with a workforce that is 84% Malagasy according to the project's website. It employs hundreds of foreign workers who make significantly more than their Malagasy counterparts. It's a secretive operation, with most of its action hidden high in the highlands around Moramanga and the rest behind a guarded wire fence. Foreign owned companies contributed the capital and the know-how to make the mine work. Madagascar provides the raw materials and the labour force. In exchange for the extraction of raw materials, Madagascar receives 1% in royalties and the employment of many of its citizens.

Yet without Ambatovy, thousands would be unemployed.

The uncomfortable place between right and wrong, past and present, progress and regression.