What is Tolerable Risk in Learning

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A good chunk of my adventures these days seems to have taken the form of following my daughter around on her adventures.  Work away in Barcelona.  Teaching in Viet Nam.  Most recently Taipei at Spring break.  By the time I arrive to visit her, our daughter, Larkyn, has scoped out the place and is able to plan a trip that encompasses the “must visit” spots. This of course included Taitung, on the south end of the island and Toroko Gorge.

I was amazed at how different Taiwan was from Mainland China.  Excessively polite people stop in the street to see if you need help with directions, line up to get on and off rapid transit and would not consider pushing.  Wilderness continues to abound.  Wild monkeys chattered as we walked to the beach.  The beaches were pristine and inviting, although swimming was often prohibited unless you were surfing.  Apparently too many people have died stepping into the shallows to take a selfie.  Coming from BC we promptly ignored this rule.  We sought out coral to check out the little fish, only to discover that the most venomous snake on the island, the water krait, also hangs out there.

Swimming back to the shore, what felt like a long reed, brushed against my leg.  No reeds in the shallows of the ocean.  Something that looked like a stick poked out of the water.  This particular beach had a lifeguard who insisted it was a stick.  This was vigorously agreed upon by my daughter’s boyfriend who had tired of all of the snake warning photos I had been sending every time they mentioned hiking.  At one point, my husband and I watched “the stick” bend it’s head to have a good 180 degree look.

By the time we reached the Toroko Gorge, I was not just worried about snakes but paralysed with fear at the thought of them.  My husband was determined that they would not prevent our hike into the gorge.  By this time, I was happy to enjoy the amenities of the luxurious Silks Place Hotel with the three different hot spring pools of varying temperatures and drinks on the rooftop pool deck.  The gorge surrounded us and I had no desire to leave.  But I was worried about letting my insistent husband go hiking alone, so off we went on our happy hike with me already ticked off.

The hike begins with a trek through a long, dark, damp tunnel.  A perfect place for a snake to be lying in wait.  On the other side of the tunnel, the sign.  Apparently wasps, and falling rock were added to the list of hazards.  And more dark, damp tunnels.  For the first time in my life, the fear overtook the wonder and the joy.  I spent the entire hike not awed by the beauty of nature, but consumed with the fear.  And angry to be in that situation.

I have been a risk taker for as long as I can remember.  You do something hard and then revel in the success.  Or you learn that flipping forward from the swing set is a bad idea and end up with a broken foot.  Or you dislocate an arm from rolling too fast down too big a hill.  Or need ten stitches because there just wasn’t enough land between the fence and broken bottle in the ditch.  These were absorbed as learning not a reasons to stop taking risks.  There was no anger than soured the experience.

For my older sister, it was different.  When she was 7 or 8 years old, she was doing the circuit with the other kids in the neighbourhood.  At one point, she fell off her bike, squished her finger and concussed herself.  She was done with the neighbourhood circuit.  She was mad at her stupid bike.  It wasn’t learning but a lesson.  She would not grow up to embrace risk but to be leery of it.  This was very much reinforced by our mother, father and step-mother who had adopted the stance that only calculated risks with a guarantee of success were acceptable.  Risk that might end in failure were for stupid people.

Risk taking has become a big part of the conversation about learning in education.  There is now general acceptance that if students do not take risks in their learning, then maximum learning does not occur.  There is now an expectation for students to risk failure in the pursuit of the learning process.  However in this equation, I’m not certain that we factor in student orientation to risk.  If the risk presented is too big, it threatens to overwhelm our more cautious and risk-adverse students.  These are the students who can’t get started.  The concept of risking failure is far from their understanding or comfort zone.  For other students, it is the grand leap that provides the challenge for them to sink their teeth into and explore the full extent of their imaginations.  These students need little front end loading to define and engage in project based learning.  Our quest as educators is to provide the scaffolding for cautious students to feel secure in their learning journey and for our adventurous students to feel the freedom to explore multiple pathways to finding their answers.  That is not an easy task.  It require is a trusting relationship with our students and an understanding of their family context.


Long Weekend Power Relax

Yes, I realize it sounds like the ultimate oxymoron BUT in the quest to cope with job stress, time is limited so strategizing is required.  This plan played out quite well for me on this Victoria Day long weekend. The weather cooperated and I am feeling grateful.

This may be the recipe… at least for me!

  1. Starting the weekend in a noisy, hip hop and happening hot spot like Local Bar and Grill.
  2. Finishing an entire book that I WANTED to read, as opposed to one I SHOULD read.  This requires reading in bed.  Curled up in a favourite chair.  In a great coffee shop (like 49th Parallel) with a sunny deck.
  3. Biking around the Stanley Park Seawall before the tourists have set out for the day.
  4. Breakfast at the perfect hole in the wall spot, yes called The Spot.
  5. Halsa Spa float in an ocean room.  Thanks for the introduction to this, Celia!
  6. Golfing.  Working out the angst on little white or fluorescent balls.  Soaking up the beautiful sounds and sights.
  7. Self designed Semperviva One day Yoga Retreat – Hatha in the am at the Sea Studio.  Restorative in the afternoon at the Kits Beach Studio.  Yin before bed at the Sun Studio.
  8. The promise of a good sleep 🙂
  9. Reaffirmation that there is life beyond work!


What is Powerful Professional Development?

I have a passion for learning.  I was a curious kid.  A risk taker. A reader.  As a beginning teacher, my learning was fueled by the plethora of professional development opportunities to learn that were available in the system, including district and school based professional development.  The British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF) provides a structure and funding for vibrant, Professional Specialist Associations to organize groups of like-minded teachers into Local Specialist Associations.  I jumped in feet first and became actively involved as participant and executive member of The Primary Teachers’ Association.  My first principal invited me to attend my first meeting of The International Reading Association (now the International Literacy Association).  I would go on to become the president of the local chapter, The B.C.Literacy Council, and then provincial coordinator.  Human Rights Education.  Special Education.  English Language Learning.  Outdoor Learning.  I had a wide range of interests and the encouragement from colleagues and administration.

There is no shortage of professional development opportunities for curious educators.  In fact, the big question, is how do we take the front-end loading and personal passions and incorporate the ideas into educational practices that support our students in their learning?  The focus on “Make and Take” or “ideas to try tomorrow”, were often novel but not necessarily transformative in my practice.

I was fortunate to cross paths with Maureen Dockendorf.   After 5 years of teaching in Abbotsford,  I began teaching in Coquitlam.  I promptly signed up to participate in a Teacher Inquiry group led by Maureen Dockendorf.  We defined areas of interest.  Clarified our question.  Came up with a plan to work with our students and colleagues to find possibilities and sometimes, answers.   Reported out on the learning to keep us accountable for doing the work and integrating other sources or learning.  The added bonus was it was fun.  It involved collaborating with colleagues.  It caused us to carefully considering the questions and responses of our students.  It led to reflection of who we were as educators in the class and how we were meeting the needs of our students.  It allowed us to go deeper in our learning.

The work of Linda Kaser and Judy Halbert has been instrumental in the inquiry process becoming an influential force in the learning of educators and students in British Columbia.  The Spiral of Inquiry they developed has been instrumental in shifting the way we think about learning.

  • What am I learning and why is it important?
  • How is my learning going?
  • What am I going to do next?

Professional development expectations have shifted.  The merits of a powerful speaker conveying ideas based on solid research and practices continues to be inspirational.  The New and Aspiring Leaders Program designed by the Harvard Graduate School of Education is masterful at bringing together inspirational speakers and facilitating with educators from all over the world.  Collaborative structures were built into the program to facilitate the sharing of ideas with educational leaders from all over the world.  Educators were astounded by the implementation of Universal Design in education for all students in Canada.

A number of strategies have become common place to facilitate conversation about the ideas.  Think Pair Share, sitting in table groups, focus questions, and mixer activities have become common strategies to encourage even diverse audiences to talk about the ideas being presented by the speaker.

Social media has become a tool to present, learn and engage with colleagues about ideas online.  I have seen this as a way to get people in the same room to engage with each other and the speaker.  Twitter has become my newspaper and educational magazine.  On a daily basis I will read articles, blogs and magazine stories that are recommended by the people I follow.

I also participate in twitter chats, some regularly scheduled like @BCedchat on Sunday nights at 7 pm PST, other slow chats over the course of a month, like @perfinker.  I share out things I’m excited about and sometimes plan to meet face to face with online , like annual Edvents facilitated by @Edvent247

I have been asked how I have the “extra” time to blog.  For me, writing is my effort to make sense of the ideas percolating in my mind.  Having worked as a faculty associate at Simon Fraser University, I developed a strong appreciation of sitting with ideas over a period of time before making a judgement.  It was not learning that came easily to me.  One of my colleagues in Coquitlam nicknamed me the Tasmanian Devil back in my SD#43 days.  Reflection takes time.  If I can reflect before formulating and articulating an idea in writing, then I am in a much better place to engage in a discussion.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to participate in the inaugural year of Short Course II offered by the British Columbia Principal Vice Principal Association.  The design of Short Course II  for experienced principals and vice principals incorporated the three elements I believe are required to exist in an infinite loop for professional development to be powerful enough to implement personal and systemic change.  The elements continue on throughout a lifetime, although not necessarily in the same order.

  1. Inspiring big ideas to consider
  2. Opportunities for meaningful collaboration with peers to occur
  3. Time to reflect on the ideas

Leading, learning and innovation was the focus of the four day summit offered by BCPVPA at the University of British Columbia – Okanagan campus in Kelowna, B.C.  The input was inspirational on so many levels.

  1. The Indigenous people in the area, welcomed us to the land and shared their teachings.
  2. David Istance not only presented but engaged with each of the groups. As many of you will already know, he was one of the authors of the OECD 7 Principles of Education that have been the catalyst of educational change around the globe.
  3. British born, Amelia Pederson, presented the doctoral work she is doing at Harvard and actively engaged with the group, table groups and individuals throughout the week.
  4. David Weiss, President and CEO of Weiss International, gave us his perspective from working with organizational consultants who lead innovative consulting and training projects.
  5. Innovative business owners in Kelowna welcomed our BCPVPA groups into their companies and engaged in conversations about their inspiration, their process of developing their innovative idea, the skill set required of their employees and their goals moving forward.

Opportunities were structured for collaboration with colleagues throughout the province over the course of the four day program and throughout the year.

  1. A facilitator was assigned to each group and welcomed us into our table group and posed discussion questions and processes to keep us on track.
  2. We sat in the same daily table group and had the opportunity to get to know each other and engage with the ideas and questions together.
  3. We also had the opportunity to meet with other people with similar interests to develop our own inquiries to focus our work throughout the year. I was able to connect both professionally and personally with colleagues from Delta and Richmond to tease out my ideas.
  4. Informal opportunities to collaborate were part of the program, such as the wine and cheese at a local winery and the Open Deck time on the roof of FreshGrade.
  5. Online opportunities were provided to meet with our table groups over the course of the year.

By the time I had finished Short Course II, I had defined the first of my professional growth goals.  This is a management requirement for principals and vice principals in the Vancouver School Board in in British Columbia.  However for me defining an inquiry goal has always been part of grounding me in my practice.  Doing it prior to the start of the next school year allowed me to reflect on the previous year, consider new learning and thoughtfully plan my year so I could act deliberately rather than reactively.  During Short Course II, we agreed to meet with other SCII participants and participate online with our table groups.  It being the inaugural year, the anticipated challenges with technology presented themselves.  However it provides a pathway forward to continue to engage with colleagues over time.  The more we got to know each other, the better the conversation.  The inspiration, the collaboration and grappling with the ideas over time, provided an amazing model for powerful professional development.

The White Terror of Taiwan

My daughter’s latest adventure has brought her and her boyfriend to Taiwan to teach English in Taipei.  The riveting history of Taiwan is previously completely unknown to me.  The culture that resulted from years as a Japanese colony, transitioned to the brutal military dictatorship wrought with the human rights abuses of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang, to an aspiring independent spirit held in check by the Chinese Nationalist Party After WWII. The quest for power of Chiang Kai-shek with his KMT base in Taiwan and Mao Zedong’s Communist party stranglehold over mainland China, resulted in the the deaths, torture and psychological terror of thousands.

I highly recommend Green Island written by Shawna Yang Ryan.  This story between the daughter and the father who delivers her into the world on February 29, 1947 casts light on the bloody, political history of Taiwan from the end of the WWII and into the 21st Century but also illuminates the love and strife that comes from being part of a family. The 2-28 Peace Park in Taipei emerges as a memorial to the dead and broken, who fought and suffered at the hands of those who revered power, far more that human life and dignity.

Our travels to the beaches of southern Taiwan brought us close to Green Island, which has become a tourist attraction.  It mentions in the tour book that the old timers of Taiwan are not much interested in going anywhere near this reminder of the incredible fear and suffering. It seems much like historical sites that offer a legacy of fear, kindle curiosity, and promise an inability to forget.


The Wild About Vancouver Festival is a grassroots movement that started in 2015.  The intention was a brainchild of Dr. Hartley Banack, who teaches in the Faculty of Education at UBC.  His students were tasked with going into willing schools to design possibilities to task learning outdoors.  The schools in turn participated in some of the student designed ideas and introduced the ideas to students in another school.  The celebration of this learning was planned to coincide with the annual celebration of Earth Day.

During my first year of participation in Wild About Vancouver 2015, I was a teaching vice principal at Tecumseh Elementary School.  As has always been my practice, I spent a lot of time teaching outdoors to both generate enthusiasm for learning and prompt inquiry.  I also developed an “Outdoor Einstein” after school program with the VSB Community School Team to provide outdoor experiences that were unfamiliar to many of our students.  We invited students from a neighbouring school and shared the joy.

Each year the Wild About Vancouver Festival is a little different.  It is always happens during the iconic cherry blossom season of Vancouver and Earth Day.  As the Steering Committee changes, so does the celebration.  Committed educators and outdoor enthusiasts bring a vitality and energy to the planning that is palpable.  It is a model of collaborative practice.  It is also an opportunity to reflect on the things that matter to you.

As a Vancouverite since my infancy, the celebration has a few important purposes.  It is opening up the possibilities for outdoor activity to adults and children alike, as well as inspiring the desire to ensure those outdoor opportunities continue as the city grows.  It is also about breaking down the walls of the school, to inspire our children to stay curious and interested in asking questions and finding answers outdoors and making connections with what is happening indoors.  WAV also brings in focus how we take care of our bodies with exercise and our mental health through an ability to pause to notice, appreciate and wonder in response to the amazing and often beautiful things happing around us.

I am now the principal of University Hill Elementary School, in a school community that values the rich learning opportunities in the Pacific Spirit Park and down the hill at the beach, all year round.  During the week,  The Swornfern Community came to visit from Norma Rose Point School and participated in a scavenger hunt led by students leaders.  They were given the challenge to find…

  • 3 Bat Boxes
  • The Mud Kitchen
  • Garter Snake Corner
  • 4 interesting trees
  • The Butterfly Garden
  • The “We Are One” circle
  • 5 kinds of birds
  • The Poppy Garden Bed
  • The Reading / Writing Garden
  • Pacific Spirit Park
  • Site of the new playground
  • The Food Garden
  • The “Secret” spot in Pacific Spirit Park

Martin Sparrow came to share his learning with the Grade 4/5 students and the Metro Vancouver rangers came to share their learning with our younger students.  Joyce Perrault, Indigenous support worker extraordinaire, planned the opportunity for Indigenous students at Norma Rose Point School and UHill Elementary to meet in our “We Are One” circle to learn together.

The Wild About Vancouver Festival is very much about celebrating the possibilities.  Kate Foreman and Andrea McEwen are teachers on staff at University Hill Elementary School who were also involved in the very beginning stage of the Wild About Vancouver Festival. The Earth Day BBQ has become a model of how a school community can come together in celebration of learning and enjoying being outdoors.

IMG_8549This year Kate Foreman, led the charge in organizing and welcoming over 500 students, staff, parents, volunteers and community helpers.  David Eby, our MLA and Attorney General, joined us with his son.  Jennifer Reddy, School Trustee, attended along with a visiting rescued owl, an electric car, The Bike Kitchen volunteers, The Young Naturalist Club, the TREK volunteers and  community partners and parents hosting booths with activities for students. I was amazed when I was approached by a First Grade who held up his model of DNA (two strands of red licorice with toothpicks and marshmallows connecting them) and gave me an impressive description of the “building blocks of all life”.

IMG_8597At the culminating Wild About Vancouver TidalWAV event at Creekside Park, just north of Science World, the positive energy continued.  Science World gave free access to the Nature Play area for families at the festival.  The playground attracted a brave crew that were willing to brave a wind that Vancouver rarely experiences.  Gail Sparrow, former Musqueam Chief, and Alan Mackinnon, Vancouver Park Commissioner started off the event for us.  The presence of Youth Outdoor Education (YOE) students from Templeton, the Strings Orchestra from Magee, Search and Rescue, The Vancouver Park Rangers, the longboarders, Fresh Roots, Trek, the Sandpiper Program, the steering committee and participants made for an inspiring event.  Our 5th year of the Wild About Vancouver Festival and we are inspired to continue to spread the message.  Check out www.wildaboutvancouver.com and #GetOutdoors

Join us for the Wild About Vancouver Festival 2020


I watched the film, Capernaum, en route to Taiwan to visit my daughter.  I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.  In the midst of family time, fun, jet-lag, and new discoveries, it has permeated my consciousness.   I had to research the setting to discover that it took place in the slums of Beirut.  The documentary-like film making and apparent authenticity of the actors led me to discover that none of the actors were trained in theatre or film.  I learned that Capernaum means “chaos” in Arabic and what that looks like in Lebanon.  In her research to co-write and direct her film, Nadine Labaki, tells us “I asked the children I spoke to if they were happy to be alive, and for the most part the answer was no.”  As an educator and as a human being, children living with chaos cannot be passively accepted.

One scene of Capernaum frequently comes to mind.  After another hellish day of trying to eek out survival, 12 year old Zain and his younger sister, Sahar, sit looking out at the sunset.  She puts her head on his shoulder and you see the palpable love between the two siblings.  It resonates because it is the almost living of one life that exists between similar aged siblings, often of different genders, that reflects the understanding of all aspects of their shared life.  I saw it with my younger brother and sister.  I see it with my own children.  In both cases, the older brother assumed responsibility for the care of his younger sister.  She reciprocates with ultimate loyalty and devotion.

It makes the film all the more devastating when Zain is unable to protect his sister, loses hope and lashes out.  His despair takes him to a place where he tries to sue his parents, in his words, “(b)ecause I was born.”  There is no evidence of parental love or protection in the story.  There is also no evidence of a society that has embraced the age-old concept that It takes a village to raise a child.

Capernaum also exposes the multi-faceted joy, desperation, hopelessness and kindness of the young woman named Rahil.  She is in Lebanon illegally from Ethiopia.  The cost prohibitive system commands a registration fee beyond her means and puts her in direct line of abuse, by a human trafficker.   She is a pawn in the power struggle of the maker of rules and opportunists, both with no regard for her.  She lives for her young son and he brings her joy.  When you see the little man standing in squalor, crying when a warehouse is raided by police, it is clear that all that child needs at that moment is his mother and a “village” to help her raise him.

In a recent interview, Nadine Labaki, director and co-author of Capernaum, states:      “For me, film-making and activism are one and the same thing.  I really do believe cinema can effect social change.”  In the case of this film, it already has.  The twelve year child who was illiterate and living on the streets in Beirut during filming, is now resettled in Norway and is going to school and learning to read.  The world is less able to close its eyes to life in the Beirut slums and Lebanese prisons.  The whole focus of Amnesty International has been to shine a light on human rights abuses so governments are held responsible for both the laws the make, the rules they enforce and when they choose to look away.

The difference with this film is the integrity of the director and the research.  The focus of the film has not been on box-office statistics, pleasing the crowd or propagandizing for power.  It is a call to action to change our world for the better.  Now more than even, it takes a village to raise a child.  We have the power of a global village that can be mobilized.  Since the 80’s in Canada, we have been teaching children to write about what they know.  As the power of social media and social commentary has grown, we have not kept pace with teaching children how to harness their power to effect change.  Passive acceptance of any stance hands over the power to the person with the agenda. Researching the source, understanding the politics and motivation of the source, triangulation of source material must be taught.  Aldous Huxley warned us about becoming passive receptacles that take in a message and do nothing, in his book 1984.  Our responsibility is to teach how to go after truth and accept you have a role and a responsibility to effect social change to make our world better for all.  Otherwise, we are choosing to live passively with chaos.

Puzzling Over The Peking Opera

I am not one to miss out.  How could I have never been to The Peking Opera?  I love the arts and have actively aspired to learn more about Chinese cultural traditions since I first taught at the Fuyang Bureau of Education twelve years ago.  At my daughter’s suggestion, I jumped at the chance to buy us tickets to see The Peking National Opera Company in Taipei .  The National Arts Centre is impressive and very fitting for viewing this ‘national treasure’.  We settled into our plush, red velvet seats, ready to be inducted into this art form.

At break time, the women beside us was thrilled that we returned after the break.

“But are you actually enjoying it?” she inquired.  We talked of the obvious strengths and Taiwan’s role in preserving this art form as part of their unique cultural history.

By the end of the performance, the woman beside us had been moved to tears, as had many others in the audience.  People jumped to their feet with a rousing standing ovation for the performers.  My daughter and I looked at each other and cautiously joined in with the polite response of good Canadians.  We clearly understood that we were missing a big part of the picture.

It was easy to appreciate the elaborate costumes and navigate the plot, even though the performance was in Mandarin.  It almost felt like a puppet show with stock characters and stylistic conventions like hand shaking that allow the audience to follow the storyline.  Stock characters that occur across different stories include:

sheng – the gentleman; dan – woman; jing – rough man; chou – clown with the mask

The talented musicians sat in a large box on stage playing traditional instruments like the erhu and allowing the emotion of the story to unfold.  The mime, dance, and acrobatics commanded attention.  The war scenes were a thing of beauty with the complex choreography and perfect timing.  We weren’t sure if the general was dead or imprisoned. If his love came to tell of his release from unjust captivity or visit him in the afterlife?   It didn’t really matter to our overall understanding of honour, strife and resolution.

It was the vocal performance that proved to be the biggest challenge to my daughter and I.  It was so far outside of anything that we had experienced before and defined as beautiful.  Particularly the very valued and extremely high vocal range of the dan was met with reluctance on my daughter’s part and a stifled cringe on my part.  And yet the response of the people around us revealed that we are outside of a big secret.  Something meaningful had transpired and the meaning remained elusive to us.  What is the trick to unlocking the mystery?  What background experiences or knowledge is required to understand the significance and beauty of the performance?

The Beauty of the Monster Within

The black poster with the gothic lettering did not come under my range of awareness until the third morning that I woke up and crept on to the deck waiting for Taipei to wake up.   The garden space has been created on the deck at the top of the 72 stairs and emerges to claim its place in the world of Taipei rooftops.  A haven of plants, birds and secrets.  The black poster asks “What kind of monster have I become”?  It is positioned beside a photo on the beach of a pre-pubescent girl on a beach with a cigarette handing out of her mouth.   The picture does not reflect all that is “sugar and spice and everything nice” but the survival of a young girl who has experienced loss, betrayal and anger.  The image is not one of innocence but of Paradise Lost.

Beyond the protected garden paradise emerges the dichotomy of the old and new of Taiwan.  Tiny green leaves emerge and begin their climb towards the heavens.   Two shiny, stainless steel  water tanks stand over the tenuously placed air conditioning systems and rusting out sheet metal, cracked tile and dirty brickwork.

Two pigeons take their place above a small area of red, clay roof tiles beyond and look down on me.  The bird choice of my not quite related, paternal grandfather brings the warm glow of having been loved unconditionally.  Only some people are able to celebrate the contradictory elements of innocence and respect the quest to emerge beyond mere survival.  He lived dichotomies and he could understand them.

Traffic in the background is a steady, predictable hum.  No blaring horns.  No sirens. No persistent car alarms.  Warbling birds and tiny chirps are different from the plaintive seagull calls and crow scoldings of my usual life, but somehow familiar and calming.  A persistent sweeping of the broom establishes a rhythm.  Exercise for a higher purpose.  Cleanliness.  Godliness.

There is no fengshui in my morning alcove.  It is a creation of the mind where the green astro-turf under the table, the collection of textured, patterned and coloured blankets over comfy couches, butterflied and dragonflied pillows, real and fake plants come together with curios to feed the imagination.  The space is not beyond the possibility of dark, twisty discoveries and fabrications.

On my flight to Taiwan, my viewing pleasure included the movie creation of Mary Shelley’s life.  Many were disbelieving that an eighteen year-old girl could have authored such a book as Frankenstein.  The bigger discovery is that the girl had already experienced such despair, disenfranchisement and had personal knowledge of the monster within by the time she was 18 years old.  The Frankenstein book was made possible by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet she loved, her own loving father, a disapproving step-mother and the havoc they wrought with her heart and mind.  Her strength was her ability to name her monster, chew on it and use it to make sense of her life.

The paint bucket with clean white paint drips emerges from a hiding place behind a couch.  The ability to put a fresh face on the less than clean and sparkly.  Imagine the possibility.  Re-created the sense of self you want to project.  Yet, is aware of the monster that lurks beneath the surface that is responsible for teaching us how to be resilient.

Barbie Celebrates International Women’s Day

Barbie, the iconic doll of my childhood, celebrated her 60th birthday this year on March 9th.  This celebration, a day after International Women’s Day, is cause to pause.  This is particularly the case for me.  I was well versed in the world of Barbie long before passionately embracing the quest for gender equity.  International Women’s Year was not declared and the March 8th day celebrated, until 1975.

The 1908 garment strike for better working conditions for women in the United States precipitated the first National Women’s Day in the United States in 1909.  The 1910 Socialist International Meeting in Copenhagen brought the quest for rights for women and suffrage to the international stage.  By 1911, the first International Women’s Day marked the right of women to vote, hold public office, work and participate in vocational training in Austria, Denmark, Switzerland and Germany.  It would take Nellie McClung and her Manitoba suffragists until 1918 to secure the vote for women in Canada and make it clearly understood that “nice women” did want the vote.  Susan B. Anthony would be hard at it, for another two years to secure the right for women to vote in the United States.

My sister had one of the first Barbies.  No bendy legs or moving wrists but a doll that brought the promise of the empowerment of being a grown-up who could make all her own decisions.  She was pretty and had flipped up hair like our mother.  Barbie liked nice outfits, shoes and accessorized, just like our mother, our aunts and our step mother.  Her store-bought clothes were expensive, so my grandmother would design and make clothes with the scraps of material from other sewing projects.  My grandpa made clothes chests for Barbie and Ken from wooden Japanese orange boxes.  My Barbie also had a car, so she was not limited in her travel.  My mother did not learn to drive and get her white, Maverick until the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.  I knew a car meant freedom.  Barbie also had a carrying case so I could bring her with me to the park, the beach, houses of cousins, my friends and my father.  Her wide range of clothing allowed her to be dressed appropriately for any activity.

It was not until I went off to university and cut my feminist teeth that Barbie fell out of favour with me.  I baulked at the notion that society had limited expectations that women should look, act, and present in a deferential way or conform to the expectations of others.  By then the slam was no longer that of Manitoba Premier, R.P. Roblin, that “nice women don’t want the vote.”  It was the notion that a woman voicing her opinion was less than desirable.  A man could assert strong opinions and be celebrated as “assertive”.  A woman doing the same thing was labelled with “aggressive”.

As a teacher and a mother, I worried about helping young girls to find their voice and embrace the many opportunities open to them.  I bemoaned when my students wrote Barbie adventure stories, especially when I was framed as the Barbie or her friend.  I refused to buy my daughter a Barbie.  When all she wanted for Christmas was a Barbie, my friends rallied and bought her several “Go, Girl” dolls.  I loved them.  They came with a themed sports outfits and gear, had flat feet and looked athletic.  My daughter politely said thanks for the hiker, the soccer player, and the skier snowboarder dolls.  She was clearly not impressed with these dolls, although she loved participating in all of the activities.  She was thrilled with the one “real” Barbie from the Fashionista line, with long blonde hair and accessories.  She was delighted that my “retro” Barbie collection of clothes and shoes fit her so Barbie could have some variety in her outfits.

As generations of Barbies have emerged, so have the varieties of skin colours, abilities, and interests reflected.  There is the notion that little girls need to see themselves reflected in the doll.  I don’t refute this.  However, my experience is that of my daughter’s selection of “the doll” makes me wonder.  I mean the special doll that takes a significance beyond all others.  This is the doll elevated to a position of human status.  The doll that is cared about, nurtured and even her feelings worried about.  For my daughter, this was Ruby.  I even feel somewhat guilty referring to her in the past tense.  She was an ever-present member of the family who biked the Kettle Valley Railway with us, travelled to through Italy with us, saved our son from a concussion when he fell from the top bunk, and attended weddings with us.   Ruby is a Cabbage Patch doll with black skin, short curly hair and brown eyes.  The minute my daughter saw her in my friend’s garage, it was clear she was the one.  My friend, Jan, saw it immediately and gave her the doll.  At that time, Cabbage Patch dolls had seen their day. My fair skin daughter with long blonde hair and blue eyes did not see herself in the doll.  Yet, Ruby was the one who allowed learning that my daughter was ready to embraced.  She is the one doll that continues to reside in my cedar chest because she is too treasured to part with.

For me, I didn’t want a Barbie that looked like me.  I wanted a Barbie who could go out dancing, drive a car, wear nice clothes, walk-in grown-up shoes, and make her own decisions.  My frustration with the pace of my physical development wasn’t an issue with looking like Barbie.  It was an issue with my cousin, my sister, and my neighbours who looked older than me and could do things that I was not allowed to do.  It was people treating me like I wasn’t very smart because I was a pretty little girl with blonde ringlets, a shy demeanor and a goal to please.  Barbie was the one with the power in my world.  A power that I wanted.

My older sister and I both grew up to be fiercely independent.  Our mother, Barbara, chose a different path that most as that time, by choosing to leave a marriage that did not encompass the kind of respect and trust she wanted in a relationship.  She taught us that we deserved respect.  The financial challenges we lived with taught us the importance of getting a good education and being able to take care of ourselves.  Yet my Mom did look like Barbie and did defer to men in a way that women in the secretarial pool did in the 60’s and 70’s.  However, she was that person and a “steel magnolia” at the same time.  As little girls, we were able to identify where we were going and what we wanted to take with us.

Sixty million barbies are sold in 150 countries each year.  The “Go, Girls” dolls went out of business.  Clearly the Barbie appeal meets some desire of our girls.  Perhaps what Barbie provided for me was the opportunity to explore through play what I wanted to incorporate into my adult life.  For me that still includes reading and playing at the beach, working at my own job, me deciding, travel, as well as appropriate clothing, foot ware and accessories for any occasion.   I will be curious to see how Barbie contributes to opening up the possibilities our girls.  Clearly, she is not going away.  Happy International Women’s Day, Barbie.

Universal Design in Learning


I was privileged to attend Jennifer Katz’s session on Curriculum Implementation Day in Vancouver recently.  She did what only a skilled professional development speaker is able to do.  She breathed life and passion and renewed energy for the work we do.  I love professional development days and curriculum implementation days for just this reason.  It is not teacher preparation time where the focus is on the myriad of daily tasks to be accomplished before going to bed.  It is reflecting on the big picture of what really matters in what we do during the days we spend with our students.  What are the things that our students will remember well into their adult lives?

One aspect of my professional growth plan this year includes working with staff to further implement universal design for learning into the school community.  As Jennifer Katz explains, Universal Design is a term borrowed from architectural design.  It came into vogue in the early 80’s when government was mandating wheelchair accessibility for public buildings.  This was a very expensive process after the fact but it was welcomed by not only people in wheelchairs but also by people pushing strollers or wheeling bags or carts or bikes into buildings.  Buildings and spaces started to be designed to meet mandatory building codes but also provide choices and elements for a wide range of users.

The “L” was added to create the term “UDL” for Universal Design for Learning and emerged as a lens or worldview to physically, emotionally, academically and socially accommodate all of our learners.   The shift allows educators to design the learning environment and programming with diversity in mind.   The original model for UDL was created by CAST at Harvard with a distinctly American context.  Katz has been working with them collaboratively in a Canadian context.  Shelley Moore has provided us with the meaningful graphic of the bowling pins and the reminder that if you want all of the pins to go down, you aim for the edges.  In our lesson design, our planning for those students on the “edges” will allow us to also target those students in the middle.  John Hattie’s well cited research on effect size, bodes well for UDL.  An unusually high effect size of 2.8 is assigned for using the UDL 3 Block Model with struggling readers due to the synthesis of multiple measures.

Ensouling Our Schools – A Universally Designed Framework for Mental Health, Well-being, and Reconciliation by Jennifer Katz is a great read, a wonderful way to invite conversations and an implementation handbook.   It has provided a blueprint for possibilities and her pro-d sessions throughout the district have scaffolded the various options for implementation.  Flexible learning spaces are in place.  Supports and spaces have been designed to assist students to self regulate.  Two types of activity paths are in the halls.  Standing desks and wobbly chairs are physically present.  Many classes provide daily supports such as “Spirit Buddies” to create a welcoming context.  Many lessons are structured to accommodate the wide diversity of learning strengths and needs.  However social and academic inclusion represents an ambitious goal.  Doug Matear, Principal of Student Support Services in the Vancouver School Board, provides a solid goalpost of what we’re aiming for:  “Universal Design for Learning allows all learners to be successful and included in all our lessons.  It provides learning adaptations for all that choose to use them and applies Assessments for Learning principles to foster meaningful and relevant meaning making.”  Cleary this is a process rather than an event.  Fortunately, it is a goal that is supported by the implementation of the new curriculum and assessment in British Columbia, with the emphasis on collaboration and the development of core competencies.

After my very inspiring professional development session with Jennifer Katz, I attended a more utilitarian session and refreshed my learning of the computer system required for ordering and managing inventory.  I got to know a colleague far better in this session as we supported each other.  The instructors of the session anticipated that each person would walk in the door with a different level of comfort with computers and proficiency with the program.  It was designed for everyone in the session to be successful.  Additional staff was available to scaffold participants not on track with the main presentation.   Visuals and hands on opportunities to practice were planned with varying degrees of support.  As a result, everyone walked out the door having learned something at the session.  Nice UDL lesson design!

Next my new buddy from this session and I headed to the annual after-hours mixer with retired colleagues.  To my delight, I was able to visit with my Grade 1 teacher from Queen Mary Elementary School.  When our paths crossed 10 years ago at a function for current and retired administrators, I recognized her eyes instantly.  More amazingly, she recognized my eyes as well, and went on to ask about my mother, Barbara.  In those days, Queen Mary had students who attended from the duplexes for rent by beach, the army barracks and the real estate had not yet sky rocked in the immediate vicinity.  What I remember from Grade 1 is that my teacher had kind and smiling eyes.  Single mothers were few and far between at that time but she also had the same kind and smiling eyes for my mother.  Universal design was not yet in vogue, but she created a learning community where everyone was welcome.  That’s what I remember.