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.