character, effectiveness, Leadership, Reflection, remembering

Doing Great Work

At this stage of my life, funerals of various kinds are a regular event in contrast to weddings – though I did attend one on Saturday where the bride and groom made their way to a small church on Toronto Island from the mainland by canoe.

Walter Pitman OC Oont would have approved. Doing things a different way was something he excelled at.  He lived a full 89 years with many careers and achievements – secondary school teacher, first elected member of the New Democratic Party to the federal government, member of the provincial parliamentant so much more.  Electoral losses later never slowed him down.  He subsequently became Dean of Arts at Trent University, President of Ryerson Techological Institute, head of the Ontario Arts Council, head of the Ontario Instutute for Studies in Education – and in retirement the biographer of five outstanding Canadian musicians.  He and his wife Ida were inveterate arts attenders and I first met them as delegates of a major choral conference where they joined a massed choir for each of my eight years on the job. Incredibly modest about his own abilities, Walter always said to me, “You’re doing great work!”.

It was good to be cut down to size at his service of celebration.  We heard from a theatre director that he always said the same thing to him.  And we even heard in a moving tribute by his daughter that he said the same thing to his children.  But perhaps the best tribute of all came when she said of her parents, “Any time any of us came into the room – children, grandchildren and now the 10 great grandchildren – their eyes would light up.  A lovely memory of a man whose enthusiasm and support lit up so many of our eyes that evening.


character, Pausing, Reflection, remembering

Terrorism here and there

I am struck this morning by two New York Times headlines in the daily news feed which I read every day. Scrolling down, I read “2 Die, Including Gunman in Shootout in Washington State High School” and “Two California Officers are Killed in Rampage“.  Five needless deaths. Much higher up in the list of news items is speculation about the motivation of the Canadian terrorist who invaded our House of Parliament this week. One needless death, three injured – and one probably necessary death there.  But what makes it different is to label it as TERRORISM.

I’ve lived in the US and love the country – but we Canadians really are somewhat different. My day of the Canadian shooting started as usual.  I had the radio on and was driving in the car when it happened this past Wednesday.  It was too early for breaking news.  I went to a morning meeting, went out to lunch with a friend, and had a short meeting with a team I am involved with.  I drove back home without the radio on, and then decided to hop on the subway to the Apple Store in one of Toronto’s biggest shopping malls to see if they had Iphone6  in stock.  I’d acquired a hearing enhancement device and the controller can be an Iphone – how cool is that! The Apple Store already had a long line-up for the limited number of the phones arriving daily – but the helpful guy at the door suggested the store on the ground floor might have one if I went with a payment plan.  Since I was going that route, and they had one phone left,  I was all set.

The process took about an hour while they tried to up-sell me on several things I didn’t want or need. I finally left to catch the subway just before evening rush hour.  I came home, checked a few emails and answered some, did a little bit of monkeying with my phone to set up voicemail and checked out a couple of the new features.  By then it was nearly 6:00 pm, so I poured a glass of wine and sat down to watch BBC America on PBS.  This was when I learned of the events in my capital city.

I have to confess that I switched immediately to a Canadian network and got caught up. The story is tragic.  It is still not clear whether the perpetrator was a terrorist sent by others or someone whose mind was deeply muddled by a mixture of dreadful ideology, isolation and misdirected anger. Like all countries we have such individuals but so far we are not all perpetually frightened. It’s comforting to have political leaders who hug each other the next day before getting back to partisan positions – but they get back to work. The headlines of the daily paper and the articles show degrees of media obsession as always we but tolerate it and get one with our lives.The news was out but no one felt they need to comment – I doubt that all the people I met were as unconnected with the news as I was.  We accept both that the world has changed – and that it hasn’t.  One of my sons and I were locked in Tower of London for a few hours in the ’70s days of Irish terrorism- but everyone remained calm.  We once lived across from a high school when a crazed teen came and killed another student.  We’ve lived through the FLQ crisis. We’ve lived through Sars.  People got killed – people got sick – people died – but not everybody did.

We live in a beautful and free world that can turn perilous. Millions don’t and live in real peril all the time.  The challenge for us is to live in both worlds without giving way to perpetual fear and hysteria.


Creating, Reflection, remembering

Christmas Greetings

At the time of year when Christmas is celebrated, it’s good to remember one of the most enduring traditions. And for anyone who thinks that success is totally predictable, this story follows its long and winding road. Worth watching!

Reflection, remembering

My Media Life So Far #13 – Transitions

TorontoAt the end of 1978, we moved to Toronto.  It was coming home to a city where I had not lived since university or early teaching days and was arriving with a husband and four sons – but it still felt like home.  In spite of five changes of household address, I have lived here ever since.

As Canada’s largest city, Toronto was much more cosmopolitan and unlike Ottawa, where the only subject of dinner party conversation was politics.  I was now out of a job. By now, the baby boomers had passed through secondary school and teachers were being laid off; I would have been too if I had stayed in Ottawa, because seniority was based on longevity with a particular school board.

ROMIt was strange to have so little to do.  My sons settled well into their new schools and my husband was occupied with his new job.  It was time to be a full time volunteer.  I sat at the information desk of the Royal Ontario Museum (long before its famous Crystal) and directed visitors to exhibits and washrooms. Two boards invited me to be members – a volunteer centre and a centre for women in transition. In these I learned something about fundraising and communication.  It was grist for the mill of finding a new career because clearly there were not going to be teaching jobs again. By the end of five years, like many of my counterparts, I suddenly found myself in arts administration – a field just coming into being as a subset of business administration in a young country eager for new arts facilities and organizations.  The favourite question of colleages was “What did you used to teach?”.  As educators, we didn’t have a clue what arts administration was.  What we did know was how to learn and get things done. I was also soon newly single with children to support and aging parents with declining health.

Creating, Creativity, Innovation, Learning, Reflection, remembering

My Media Life So Far #11 – Back to the City

When we moved back to Ottawa I joined the faculty of Canterbury High School, an arts high school that specialized in orchestral, band, and piano and the visual arts – a dance program was added much later – and the school attracted students from all over Canada’s capital city.  It was a pleasure to go to school assemblies and art shows that displayed creative student talent. My subject area is now listed as Literary Arts. Piano seems to have disappeared. Even in the ’80s the school had a piano studio with electronic keyboards that allowed a number of students to practice without disturbing one another. I didn’t trade in my own piano for an electronic one until 2005. Vocal arts, composition and guitar are now part of the program.

I was interested in how the way that students performed in English related strongly to their subject major – and perhaps more than anything – the teaching philosophies of their instructors.  The instrumental music students were disciplined and structured, rather like the Germanic department head. The band majors appeared to absorb the more relaxed style of the assistant head, who had formerly been a member of the RCMP band. The most daring and innovative of my English students reflected the teaching of John Topelko, the head of visual arts, and continuing as a working artist until a recent stroke. He also hired other artists and told them to get teaching qualification at summer school on their own time.

When I arrived, the principal was Russ Jackson, is still regarded as a  Canadian football hero with a continuing interest in the game.who had pursued a dual career in sports and education. It was a bit disconcerting to have him conduct a routine inspection unannounced when the lesson of the day was an essay entitled, “Let’s Abolish Sport”; but he was always as open to new ways of thinking in the classroom as he was on the football field. I started one year with a class of 43 students which had to be split in half. When a young teacher arrived who wanted to try team teaching  with a new classroom configurations of desks in the round, Russ was the first to encourage us to try it out. He allowed the school to group all the professional development days into a single week so that we could bring in some experts in group dynamics –  a pretty new field in the thinking of schools at the time – and the staff also got a chance to skate the entire length of the Ottawa Canal after school and party at Russ’s place afterwards.

We were also inspired by the head of the English department at a neighboring school, Brian Doyle. Doyle encouraged teachers to become participants in learning and taught that by example. I imitated his poetry contest in my own classroom. Each student was asked to write a poem and I had to contribute one as well. All of these were submitted, numbered and sent to the typing class for a more professional presentation. A complete set of poems was given to each student and they were read aloud and discussed. I reminded the students to be diplomatic in their assessments because the anonymous entry under discussion might be mine. The result was to produce student comments from an eleventh grade class such as “The second line moved me” or “That image was adroit”. In the end there was a vote for the three best poems and the authors were then revealed.  I was gratified to come third.  An interesting side result was the posting of student work on the copious bulletin boards.  When I posted material relating to famous authors, it was usually defaced or scribbled on. Student work never was.

Another of Doyle’s great ideas was the “novel diary”.  Instead endless discussions of plot and character, Doyle suggested that students read a chapter a day and write a half page or more of their reaction to the novel. Marking these was easy – 100% if you wrote something and zero if you didn’t.  He noted that a quiet place to read at home was one thing that many students never had; that situation mirrored his own growing up, He suggested that a classroom might be a quiet place to read instead of endless prattling from a talking head. While the students read A Separate Peace, I read what they had written and wrote back.  It was an early one-to-one e-mail – like correspondence, though of course we didn’t know of such a thing at this point. Both the writing – freed from the usual pompous red penciling of grammar and spelling – was honest and flowing, and the students and I enjoyed sharing their growing understanding of the novel. More than one moved from “This is the worst book I ever read – it stinks” to “This is the best novel I ever read and it makes me want to be a writer”.

Doyle’s other great idea came from the same problem that I had experienced earlier –  what to do with a limited textbook budget. He bought 30 subscriptions to The New Yorker. The covers provided endless inspiration for writing, Woody Allen parodies of Bacon provided models for further parodies by the students, and the advertisements influenced their taste.  The New Yorkers circulated for years and may still be in use.

Another thing that made a huge difference in the classroom was the ability to photocopy. School office secretaries used Gestetners to mass-produce announcements to be sent home but they were not part of a classroom teacher’s repertoire and we were generally limited to books and blackboards. (I had to explain to a grandchild recently what a blackboard was.) Though photocopying had been around for quite a while, it took time for school boards to even think of providing them for teachers.  Suddenly there was the ability to copy any article from other sources.  Teachers went wild. Fairly soon we were given individual codes to monitor our use of paper. We never even thought of how this practice might violate copyright.

Last, but not least, I taught improvised drama – with neither proper training or a licence. It was inspired by the writing of Brian Way, who along with Peter Slade was one of the early proponents of child drama and its value in forming an understanding of theatre and expression of emotion. I tried to see Way on a sabbatical in England in 1977 only to discover that he had moved to western Canada. The 70’s was also the decade that allowed experimentation of the 1968 Hall Dennis Report whose recommendations mirror the recent ones of Sir Ken Robinson more than 40 years later. They were espoused by the best teachers and not surprisingly, scorned by other teachers, politicians and the media.

Learning, Reflection, remembering

My Media Life so far #9 – Back to Teaching in the Country

500px-CobdenpicWe lived in Ottawa for three years and produced two more sons. By 1967 we had moved to Campbell’s Bay, a small village in western Quebec with a bilingual population of about 1,000.  A combination of factors drove me back to a classroom – a daily commute of 35 miles each way, across the provincial border to Cobden in southeastern Ontario north of Ottawa. The car radio was a constant companion.

This time the school principal had the choice of making me – with the equivalent of three full years of teaching under my belt – or an absolute beginner –  the head of the English department and I won by default. I got to teach the three senior grades of the Cobden High School. At that time the Province of Ontario still had province-wide university entrance exams and the results were published so there was pressure to produce results in a very public way.

WrinkleInTime (2)Teachinng English was fun. The students were very different from the ones I had taught at St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s School in New York City, which at that time also had a secondary school level. My pupils had included the children of famed writer, Madeleine L’Engle – she herself taught part time in the school in those days while she was waiting, unsuccessfully for a publisher to pick up what became one of the most successful children’s books ever – A Wrinkle in Time. I had also taught a daughter of one of the producers of the Jack Paar show. Those kids were urban, worldly and sophisticated.

In contrast, the students at Cobden High School were pragmatic and down to earth; many of them started their school days with farm chores. I didn’t have to be the staff sponsor of the school yearbook, but I was expected to direct the school play. To make it even more challenging, the cast had to come solely from the Grade XII classes. It made sense to choose Our Town since this was the play I knew better than any other. It was a great success, largely because these students – especially the males – looked the part of the more mature characters – and the kids understood the context of the play really well.

Dylan Thomas (2)Like many schools at the time, the budget for new textbooks was pathetic. When asked to order books to deal with unspent money in the departmental budget, I blew the whole amount on LP recordings of poetry readings. That turned out to be a good choice. We were expanding our media repertoire as well as our understanding of literature.

Learning, Reflection, remembering

My Media Life So Far #8 – Live Theatre

The next few years are something of a blur in terms of media.  There was a lot going on in my personal life – marrying in 1969 and moving to New York City, where my husband was a student at the General Theological Seminary, one of those for the Episcopal Church, and later to Ottawa, Canada’s capital. Live theatre has always been part of media and this was my chance to participate. Just after my first son was born in 1961, I landed lead roles in the seminary’s productions of Our Town and in the following year, the title role in Iolanthe. The seminary had a tradition of presenting dramas and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in alternate years.

Clergy in training were natural hams and many were excellent singers, while some had also been on stage in both amateur and summer stock productions before entering the seminary. It’s important to note that this gave me an opportunity to work with two professional directors of note.  Cynthia Belgrave was taking a break from her role as Adelaide Bobo in the first New York production of Genet’s The Blacks and Dorothy Raedler was the director of the American Savoyards who did the seminary a favour of directing its G&S productions because she liked working with the students.

Our Town coverWhen I went to the audition for Our Town, I had the peculiar experience of knowing that I was going to get the lead role of Emily. The competitors in the waiting room were wives of students or tutors so the field was limited, and I was the only one who could possibly pass as 12 years old in the first act. I knew the play well after acting as prompter for my high school production. As well as that knowledge, I had the advantage of being a new mother.  In act three of the play, the character has died in childbirth and her entry into another world gives her some perspective on the real one.

Ms Belgrave was an intense director and I remember her as a very angry black woman. At the time I thought she didn’t like me, but in retrospect she was just working desperately to help me express a greater emotional range.  I didn’t know until recently that she was the first black woman ever to clerk in a downtown Boston department store, so her anger in 1961 was probably well justified. She also acted in the plays of James Baldwin and Wole Soyinka as well as that of Genet; she did note that spending some time with Thornton Wilder was a good respite from the intensity of The Blacks. In later life she played many roles in TV series including a librarian in Law and Order.

She was rough on me but fair, and I grew in the process.  In the final act of Our Town, where Emily has an amazing soliloquy of praise for the miracle of life, the audience stopped the show with applause on the last night. I remember thinking, “She did that right” as though the applause was for the character and not for me – or perhaps for the director.  Cynthia was there for that final performance and gave me a hug with the words, “You finally came through”.

IolantheThe G&S productions nearly always imported the leads, who got a chance to try out the roles before appearing on the professional stage. One of the contraltos actually got a better professional part and everyone moved up one step. So I emerged from the trio to the larger title role. These productions were performed for three consecutive nights and with no proscenium stage available they were presented in the round.  That was a good preparation for multimedia though the word had yet to enter anyone’s vocabulary.

As a director Dorothy Raedler was, in contrast, all joviality and approval. She had started her own theatre company in 1939; it became the American Savoyards  in 1952 and was a highly regarded fixture in the New York musical world through the late 1960’s.  In our amateur production we had to learn simple dance routines as well as acting and singing.  The men’s chorus was up to the challenge but Miss Raedler’s experiments with the women’s chorus generally had to scale back.

One of the things about experiences like these was to learn the number of players who are necessary to the production above and beyond the performers. Many roles were duplicated or done capably by volunteers – costumers, stage crew, publicists, marketers, front of house. The music director also served as vocal coach and rehearsal pianist.Compared to modern TV or moving production the numbers were miniscule. When visiting LA some years ago and attending a movie, I noticed that no one left before the credits. Everyone knows someone who plays a part.