TedxVancouver Starts the Conversation

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One question brought 3500 Vancouverites from all walks of life together on a rainy day.   The tone in Roger’s Arena morphed from captive to zen to electric depending on the speaker and the message. Technology provided an interactive component to solicit opinions of the group, artist renditions accompanying performances, illustrations of speaker’s points and the opportunity to tweet(#TEDxVan) and show that history can be interesting with Sam Sullivan’s videos. Continue reading “TedxVancouver Starts the Conversation”

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Breathing Life into History

Walking in downtown Charlottetown is like being part of those Murder Mystery board game where everyone dresses up and assumes a role.  Actors dressed in period costumes assume the roles of the a Fathers of Confederation and Victorian women and wander around The Province House area where the notion of a Canadian Dominion was conceived in 1864.  The Historic Queen Square walking tour was well worth the $5.00 and the young actress playing the daughter of George Coles, the 1st Premier of P.E.I., gave a good sense of the politics of the day.  She also took us into the Confederation House Art Gallery to see the historic 1765 map of P.E.I. on loan from England.

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The surveyor-general of North America at the time,  Samuel Holland, made the map from his base camp at Observation Cove and a boat travelling around the island which matches the satellite images today.  So very difficult to fathom.

I also loved the follow up film in the Confederation a House.  The dramatization credits the inspiration and vision of Sir John A. Macdonald in Upper Canada and Sir Etienne Cartier in Lower Canada  in being able to broker a deal for a unified Canada in what started as a conversation about a union of Maritime provinces.  It also acknowledges the problematic absence of the voice of Aboriginal people and woman.  Overall a great model of how we can tell the stories of our past in a way which fuels the imagination.  Last year we celebrated Sir John A Macdonald’s 150th birthday at our school.  This year I have several ideas bubbling!

Moving Beyond Half Truths and Innuendo

In The Vancouver Sun (Jan.3,2015 page A3), Daphne Braham did an OpEd piece: “A call for a return to rationality”.   Imagine the notion of proposing the checking of facts before forming opinions.   Brilliant!  What happened to the pause button, the one that use to be hit before uninformed criticisms intended to discredit, were lobbed into conversations or amplified via social media? How did we get to a point where we opted out of taking responsibility for what we popularize?   Negative statements or decontextualized comments are intimate incompetence, lack of the required cognitive skills or general untrustworthiness.  At times, even blatant lies are presented as fact and retracted after the damage is done or not.

How do we teach kids to care about fact?  How do we teach them that half truths and innuendo are neither reliable nor moral?   I am working under the presumption that we have a role to play as educators, parents and friends of the children under our care.  If we teach our children to scrutinize information and ask good questions, certainly it follows that there will be a higher degree of insistence on reasoned and fair decisions from themselves, as well as from friends, family and decision makers.

I recently went to see the Broadway musical, Into The Woods, that recently made it’s film appearance starring Meryl Streep.  Two classic lines jumped out of the movie:   “Be careful of the stories you tell, children will listen” and “I was brought up to be charming, not sincere”.  What are the stories we are telling our children with our conversations and treatment of others people and discussion of events?  Are we quick to jump to conclusions based on hearsay?  Do we give the benefit of the doubt to the person involved?  Do we place more value on charm than sincerity?  Do we ask enough questions to try to get a full picture of the situation or person.  Do we insist on factual information to make reasoned decisions?

The Grade 3 and 4 students that I work with two days a week are starting to do research projects on Canada.  How do we get children to understand history as a story involving real people with real stories at a specific point in time?  History by it’s nature is skewed by the person who is allowed to tell the story.  If children understand this at a young age, does it impact their quest to look at the story from a variety of viewpoints?  Does it define an insistence on looking at the facts?  Does it help them to look past the personality of the person telling the story?  My training in history insists that it must be true.  My social conscience hopes it is. The Grade 3 students in my class are each researching a province in Canada.  The Grade 4’s are researching Aboriginal Nations across Canada who are defined by geography.  I am very interested to be part of this conversation.  What will the questions be?  I’m hoping it is a spark that leads to insistence that rationality reins supreme in guiding perceptions and conclusions.  The beauty of being an educator, is we really do believe we can make a difference and create positive change.

The Power of The Talking Stick

Last weekend I came across a great tweet by Dr. Allen Mendler.  He did a nice job of articulating the need for educators to directly teach students how to have a conversation.  The last item on his list was recommending using a talking stick.  Last week I had one of many experiences, that have underlined the power of the talking stick. In the Vancouver Board of Education, there are several Aboriginal School Support workers.  We are fortunate to have Dena Galay assigned to our school to support our Aboriginal students and work with teachers to create a better understanding of past and present Aboriginal culture.  She has been working in my classroom of Grade 3/4 students and helping us to learn about Aboriginal people in our study of Canada.  She has shared her Metis heritage from Dene (Chippewayan) and French Canadian roots in northern Saskatchewan.  Last Tuesday, we did our first talking circle. Dena has a very special talking stick that was gifted to her by the first female carver in British Columbia, Nan Williams, from the Nu Chul Nuth ( Nootka) band.

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She introduced each of the symbols on the talking stick and its significance in Aboriginal Culture, especially to Indigenous people on the Northwest Coast of North America.   She did an amazing job of setting up a respectful context for the person holding the talking stick to speak and to be heard.  She encouraged the class to share their culture and the places their parents were born.  Many of the students in my class speak one or more languages other than English at home.   Some students are not familiar with participating in conversations at home or at school with adults.  A lot of encouragement is placed on joining conversations and participating in lessons at school to develop proficiency in English language skills.  This is very hard for some students.  I noticed two particularly interesting things during the circle:

1.  The students comfortable talking in a large group, looked up and talked to the group.

2.  Students that were more reluctant to speak, looked at the talking stick while they shared.

Dena posed one topic at the beginning of the circle for each student to respond to.  All of the students were able to participate without prompting, even the 3rd grader who arrived from China at the end of August and is just starting to speak English.  Once we finished the question about culture, students were anxious to go around the circle again.  The talking stick allowed all of the students to be successful in speaking during the circle.

Laurie Ebenal, principal of Suwa”lkh School in Coquitlam, presented at the Mental Health Symposium, sponsored by BCPVPA recently.    To introduce the circle, she handed out cards with symbols that are important in Aboriginal culture.  The task was to find the person with the same card and ask some questions to introduce your partner during the circle.  It was a very non-threatening mixer activity to get to know one another and to introduce the circle.  She had a pile of artifacts in the center of the circle such as an eagle feather, an abalone shell and a stone.  She is the principal in an alternate school named Suw’lkh which means “First Beginnings.”  This school supports Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students who are struggling to succeed.  When students arrive at the school, they are frequently reluctant to share their experiences and feelings.  She explained that the artifacts are a way to draw attention away from the speaker and establish a greater comfort zone for sharing.   It’s easier for some students to express their thoughts while looking at the artifacts.  It’s easier for some students to receive the information without making eye contact.  It provides another path into the circle.

When I was teaching Middle School in Coquitlam, I worked with Latash (Maurice) Nahanee who was an Aboriginal Support worker at the time.  We worked with a group of Aboriginal students from SD#43 and a group of Aboriginal students from Ottawa on a Youth Exchange initiative sponsored by the YMCA.  The talking circle was a regular part of our work with our students.  There was an expectation that honesty and respect would be part of the experience.  It was the vehicle for communication within the group, whether it was getting to know the group, processing experiences, or problem solving.  This was also a good space to build community and prepare for the more formal, ceremonial circles which we participated in during our visit to Ottawa.

I have experienced the talking circle as being a good addition to any educational context to build a sense of belonging.   The talking stick is an instrument of Aboriginal democracy that has spanned thousands of years.  It has a lot to teach us about past and present day Aboriginal culture.  At best, the talking stick is introduced by a person within the Aboriginal culture who communicates the knowledge, the pride, the respect and the honour that comes when we are gifted with this ancient tradition.   The development of oral language skills evolves as students grapple with the task of  communicating their thoughts and feelings to their peers.  It also helps students to develop active listening skills by tuning into the body language and words of the speaker in an undistracted context.  As my Grade 3 and 4 students got ready for recess, the most prevalent question was “When can we do that again?”

 

 

 

http://www.edutopia.org/blog/teaching-your-students-conversation-allen-mendler