Yesterday I did a repeat of an event of 2015.  It was held at Toronto’s historic Anglican  cathedral and honoured a number who received the Order of the Diocese of Toronto for their volunteer commitments.  Several friends and colleagues were among them.  The citations covered an extraordinary range of activities from the simplest to work of national significance. Last year I was honoured to be among them.  The achievements cited as always are humbling and most say they wonder why they have been included. It was also inspiring to see that two of the women were in their mid 90’s and still going strong.

A few of us wore our medals.  It’s about the only place where doing so makes sense! But we caused some confusion for the official photographer – a last year medalist himself – who assumed we should be in the group picture.


My Media Life So Far #14 – New Job, New Technology

towerIt was 1982.  I was working in an office for the first time since university summers when I hand coded all those insurance cards that went into the primitive main- frames or searched for lost policies in filing cabinets.  I was now the executive administrator of a service organization for the province’s choirs. I was getting helpful hints every time there was a new phone call from my administrative assistant, who always told me who the person on the phone really was. Three weeks in she had a fall and was hospitalized.  I remember sitting on the floor surrounded by manuals and trying to cope with the photocopier and postage machine.  I hardly knew how to turn on an electric typewriter let along type with it.

We were a staff of three on her return.  The other two were in their 70s and 20s and I was smack in the middle.  The older woman was a godsend who patiently taught me administration and the younger one was full of innovative energy.  I met with provincial representatives who funded our overhead and with our sister organizations who provided services to orchestral music, drama and the visual arts.  What we started hearing about was something called a personal computer.

Our organization had no money for research or feasibility studies, but the orchestra organization had just spent $5,000 on a feasibility study – so I asked to borrow it.  The recommendations included the purchase of an Altos computer and customized software. While I have made lots of bad decisions before and since, I did make one good one after  concluding that we were in no way unique and should go for a basic machine and proprietary software.  So in the spring of 1983 we became the proud owners of one PC with an amazing 10 megabytes of memory, and versions of Wordstar, DBase Three and Lotus123. Their Altos never arrived and the programming consultant disappeared.

We didn’t have proper manuals because the software came pre-installed.  I spent a good deal of my own money buying heavy paperbacks produced by Sybase and other publishers. I always looked for ones whose authors were out-of-work English teachers like me. We had to learn a number of keyboard combinations to perform simple tasks.  The only one that I have properly retained to this day is Ctrl-Alt-Delete.  That summer I took a three week holiday  and forgot everything that I had learned.  Two of us mastered Wordstar slowly while third could always beat us on the IBM Selectric with her excellent knowledge of both touch-typing and shorthand.  I was so taken with the new machine, that I bought a similar desktop for $2500 of my personal hard earned dollars and took it home. We stared at the black screen with its orange letters until our eyes ached. But we were on our way.

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.


My Media Life So Far #12 – UK Exchange

In 1977 my family and I departed for a six months exchange in England based in Roehampton, a district in south-west London.  We traded homes, cars and pets and schools with a British family with three girls.  In retrospect it might have been interesting also to trade our four boys but we didn’t go quite that far.

The change of scene offered new insights into culture, class and vocabulary.  We were now in a new world of off-licences, school dinners with lemon sponge, school uniforms (long pants for sixth grade and tenth, short pants for seventh and kindergarten). Our youngest started school with great enthusiasm but it waned each day.  By the end of the week when asked, “What’s wrong?” he replied, “Nobody understands me when I talk.  All they say is “Pawdon? Pawdon”  Accents mattered.  We fared well as colonials because no one really knew how to place us in terms of social class and we were welcome in both the grander houses and those of the lady who “did for them”. Our car also now had a bonnet and a boot.

There were huge benefits.  Having all my sons in school all day gave me the freedom to research the teaching of English in local schools.  I visited several thanks to the help of the British Council representative based in Ottawa and when I phoned for assistance, it turned out that his home in the UK was in the district where we were living. This rated not just a list of schools to visit but a dinner invitation.  Research in that era depended not on web searches, but on books and in-person visits. Both proved fruitful and I was able to write a research paper that was later filed with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation.  I had applied to that body for a small grant but never heard from them before departing.  Happily the grant came through within a week of our return to Canada; the paper had been written and expenses had been paid, so we all got new clothes courtesy of good British shops like Selfridges and Marks & Spencer. The most used English composition text in Canada at the time was called Learning to Write.  My paper was entitled Writing to Learn.

The best teachers in the English school system then appeared to know that the act of writing helps clarify thought. The teaching of literature was also instructive in that students were encouraged to explore their own emotions and experience much more than to dwell on technical aspects. I liked the emphasis on good speaking as well.  It was not surprising that both vocabulary and literacy generally benefited from the offerings of public broadcasting, especially the BBC. There was no 500 channel universe, but there was always something on that benefited audiences of any age. Radio at that stage was a particular delight. Live theatre always beckoned.  We were able to travel north before coming home and took in the York Mystery Plays, performed outdoors by a local amateur cast that more than did justice to their long tradition of presentations.

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.

media, Reflection

My Media Life So Far #10 – Amalgamation

school_thumbCobden High School was replaced by a brand new school, Opeongo in 1968. It was built half way between the village of Cobden and the village of Eganville to the west.  The two small communities had been ardent sports rivals for years and neither would agree to put the school on the other’s turf. The result was that teaching and administrative staff as well as students all had to travel by car or school bus to get to the building smack in the middle of a farm field.  It added 10 miles to my commute each way and some students also had to travel about 40 miles to get to school.

Sgt. PepperBut it was a marvellous place. There were good facilities and its first principal, Don Whillans, supported all kinds of innovation and continued on the job until his retirement in 1986. The second year after the school opened he agreed to program an extra unit of English for the entire eleventh grade as an experiiment. We taught six week modules in various subject areas in rotation.  The department head was delighted to spend six weeks solely on grammar and usage; I taught a unit of improvised drama.  The assistant head who had started the ball rolling on the experiment offered a unit entitled, Understanding Media and Marshall MacLuhan. Regular English classes were also branching into new territory where the lyrics of Sgt. Pepper competed with Tennyson and Browning.

filmWhen I began to teach a novel to a regular class, one student came to me and asked to beg off because he had read it and wanted to do something different? “What do you want to do?” I asked.  “Make a movie”, he replied. “How will you do that”?  It turned out that he had already conscripted a part-time technical assistant to help.  The latter was finishing up a couple of credits and the principal had astutely hired him to be the media person, who would deliver projectors to the classroom all ready to go.  Since most of us didn’t have a clue as to how to run a projector, this saved hours of rewinding and repair.  The technical assistant also had a movie camera.

The student conceived of a film that would support tourism at a nearby First Nations Reserve.  His plan was to visit it and interview its residents.  Of course he had never been there and the scene that met him was not one that inspired tourism.  He stuck with his original script but what the camera caught was totally different.  It was the best example of irony that had ever entered my classroom.  When the time came to show the film to the class, they were riveted.  The camera man also filmed the class as they watched it, and filmed them again as they watched themselves watching.  The process would have continued indefinitely but we eventually had to stop.

What I learned was the opportunity to step back and let students learn by themselves.  I was reasonably good learner in my own right  but I was also a conventionally trained teacher, I had not been taught to trust that others could learn by themselves just as competently.  I have often wondered whether the two film makers went on to professional careers, but whatever happened they certainly benefited then from being set free of the normal classroom requirements..

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.