Keen to check out the state of one of my favourite getaway spots in the city, the kids and I made the trek over to the Island on Friday after work, for dinner and a swim.
Typically by this point in the summer, I would've had at least two visits to the Toronto Islands. Alas, due to this year's heavy rainfall and flooding, the Toronto Islands remained largely closed to the public, and are set to reopen on Monday.
Keen to check out the state of one of my favourite getaway spots in the city, the kids and I made the trek over to the Island on Friday after work, for dinner and a swim.
As my school-board colleagues were sending me "happy summer" texts this past week, I got thinking back to my first few years of teaching, and the sincere but often misguided efforts I made to promote equity in my classroom...
"What colour?" asked the lady at the chocolate shop (I was buying some treats to go along with the gift cards I had gotten the kids' teachers, and she wanted to know what colour ribbon she should tie the little boxes with).
When I hesitated, she helpfully offered, "male, or female?" as though a particular gender "owns" any particular colour scheme.
The best part was when I challenged her by asking nonchalantly whether we were really still asking those sorts of questions in 2017, she responded completely unfazed with, "well, I just wouldn't want to put like a pink ribbon if it were for a boy, you know?"
I didn't bother to tell her that one of my boys regularly wears pink yoga pants.
Someone I work with was telling me last fall about their experiences in the middle east, and about how "deviant behaviour" (they were referring to anyone who loves someone of the same sex as themselves) was looked down on.
Although my colleague is not violently homophobic, and tries hard to say the "right" things, they are blissfully ignorant of their heteronormativity, and of the general annoyance (at best) and internal pain (at worst) caused by some of their comments.
Recently, another colleague -- who also identifies as LGBTQ+ -- and I were debating the merits of "tolerance". I don't want to be tolerated, I explained, because someone thinks they're "supposed" to be "okay" with who I am because some law says so, but really they think there is a problem with the fact that I am gay. Rather, I want to be accepted as I accept others, the same as any straight person is accepted, because I'm a human being same as they are, with human rights same as they have.
To be "tolerated" stinks of "deviant behaviour". And while my thoughts and actions as Vera may be deviant, who I love is not!
Aren't We There Yet?
A colleague of my partner's scoffed at me last December when -- tired of the small talk in the kitchen at the holiday party, and eager to forge richer conversational fodder -- I raised the issue of oppression in Canada.
We were discussing pay equity (men and women getting paid the same -- or not, as the case still often is, shockingly -- for similar jobs), and he was surprised that I would suggest such a thing is still an issue in Canada in 2017.
This white, male, straight, able-bodied colleague went on to suggest the usual "gender/racial/LGBTQ, etc. bias isn't really a thing anymore" line, that allegedly we'd solved all these problems, at least in Canada.
My partner tried to engage him in data-based conversation at work later in the week. She soon gave up. Like white people of privilege in response to last year's Black Lives Matter protest at Pride, he could not be convinced with facts and logic.
We're into July now, and I've been meaning to write a post about Pride Month all through June. But every time I sat down to write, I just get so darned tired of how far we still have to go... despite how far we've come.
One of my favourite things about PEI is its proximity to the ocean. From red shale to white sandy dunes, the beaches of Prince Edward Island are diverse and delightful. Below are three that Simon and I visited on our most recent trip to the island…
1. "Lighthouse Beach"
Often our first stop on the way home from the airport upon arrival in Charlottetown is the lighthouse beach, an endless, shallow, sandy beach over the dune next to St Peters Harbour Lighthouse near our house. This beach features the most spectacular sunsets, and it makes a great start to any island visit!
We have spent many a glorious evening at this beach, and have also recently began exploring skim boarding, ideal at this beach, due to its shallow waters and many sand bars.
The dunes at Greenwhich National Park, a short drive from St Peters Bay, offer a magnificent immersion into the ever-evolving nature PEI is famous for. A floating boardwalk leads explorers over a constantly shifting series of dunes and onto a glorious, white, sandy beach, perfect for cooling off after a long, hot walk across the meadow, through the forest and over the above-mentioned floating boardwalk.
The expansive views from pretty much any point along the walk are stunning. Photos hardly do it justice. Even Roberta Bondar photographed this world wonder as one of her favourite places on earth; several of her massive works hang in the interpretive centre next to the main parking lot.
3. Cable Head East
One of the neat things about Prince Edward Island is that in addition to several well-publicized public beaches, there are innumerable "secret" places where the land meets the ocean. Simon and I stumbled across on such spot while looking at a property out in Cable Head, a red shale beach with many small rocks and lots of great exploring!
In addition to featuring the pastoral scenery necessary for a tranquil, restorative vacation, PEI has some pretty amazing places that offer an ideal opportunity to contemplate the rugged beauty of the natural world. How lucky we are that our little corner of the island is within a walk, bike ride or a short drive of so many of them.
Not sure how, but suddenly three months have passed since the glorious week Simon, Alex and I spend on this warm island, and I still haven't found a few minutes to blog about the experience, despite posting both Alex's and Simon's impressions soon after our return in early Feb. Tonight, though... tonight!
I should preface this post by confessing that any photos herein are pilfered from the Internet. Wifi being sketchy, and me wanting to completely unplug and focus on the kids and on the cultural experience, I did not bring my phone (and therefore not my camera, watch, calendar, etc.)
It was a freeing if sometimes frustrating exercise, and while I marginally regret not having captured some personal experiences "on film" (digitally), overall I am glad I left my screen addiction behind in Canada that week. After all, for nearly a decade, my mother traveled to Cuba every year, long before Smartphones and personal computers, and survived every time to tell the tale, so I figured we could, too, and we did!
It was delightful to witness the boys processing their first impressions of Cuba, and make connections to other Latin American countries they have visited... it wasn't long after we stepped off the plan in Varadero that they began reminiscing about Argentina; certainly the climate felt similar to Buenos Aires, the palm trees, warm, humid air... and the fact that the officials all spoke Spanish and the announcements over the loudspeakers were in Spanish, too!
The Varadero Airport is considerably bigger (and more touristy) than the smaller one my mother, grandmother and I landed at years ago on the other side of the island, and while I felt a bit inauthentic introducing my kids to Cuba in this fashion, I knew that the rest and relaxation of the tourist resort would form only part of the trip (more on that later), so I forgave myself!
We boarded a bus along with several other tourists eager to get whichever destination they had booked from a number of resorts along the Varadero strip and -- after a bit of a delay due to a fellow passenger who succumbed to the temptation of the overpriced airport carts and bought a cigar and a cerveza -- we were off to the hotels.
Playa de Oro
Our own destination was Playa de Oro and -- while dated -- it was nevertheless larger than any resort I'd been to before: Two large, multi-floor hotel buildings flanked a giant pool with a walking path/bridge, several bars and small restaurants dotted the property, and the main lobby building featured an enormous dining room with buffet, a health centre and stage.
The rooms themselves were simple, and the paint in the hallway was peeling in many places, but truth be told, we spent more time at the beach anyway, as the pull of the ocean was strong. Swimming, playing cards, reading together... and in the evenings, a card game in the lobby, while listening to some Cuban Jazz that the local house band played after dinner.
One of our intended highlights was an overnight trip to Havana. I had never been there before, but I knew it was an important cultural hub to introduce my children to, and since AirBnB had very recently become legal in Havana, I booked a Casa Particulares through that familiar platform before leaving Toronto and took my printed out confirmation along with a Lonely Planet guidebook that featured a whole section on the capital, and included a pull-out map!
The plan was to visit the Museo de la Revolucion, walk along the Malecon, and just generally take in the atmosphere of this incredible city of 3 million people. I had also intended to check out Hemingway's house, but that was not to be, as it was located too far on the outskirts, and our time in the city was simply too short.
The first step was getting there. On a cash budget and wanting to put more money into the hands of locals and less into the already overflowing coffers of the tour agency, I booked one-way transfers on a bus, through the hotel. My lonely planet guide suggested I could hire a local car once in Havana to take us back.
Havana is divided into three main sections: Habana Veijo (or Old Havana), Centro and Vedado. Our Casa was an apartment upstairs in a private home on Gervasio, in central Havana, about a block from the Malecon (and, as it turned out as I later discovered, literally up the street from the Paladar now located in the home featured in the movie Fresa y Chocolate).
The trouble was that I actually had no idea where we were going, and of course, no way of contacting the Host, what with being internet- and device-free for the week! I came to this realization about two thirds of the way to the city, and started hurridly and more than a little panic scouring the fold-out map in my Lonely Planet guide... Irritatingly, the Veijo map seemed to end where the Centro map began, without overlap at precisely the spot I needed.
So we trusted our luck with a taxi outside of the museum (well, first we had to argue with a driver who saw a helpless woman with her tourist map, two kids and a lost look on her face; I soon ditched that guy and used my pathetically limited Spanish to charm my way into a half-the-price-but-according-to-my-guidebook-still too-much ride in another car, and thus we experienced our first of several short rides in the world famous and ubiquitous antique Cuban cars!)
Once we found the building where our Casa was located, we run the doorbell by the metal gate to the upstairs apartment, and the hosts' father let us in, and took us up another flight of stairs, a rickety old staircase, and into our top floor flat. Two large terraces impressed us, but remained largely unusable during our one night visit, due to the rainy weather. Instead, we dropped off our bags, claimed our beds, and headed out for a slice of pizza at a nearby corner stand our host recommended to us!
After our bite to eat, we wandered the streets and took in the ambiance, which was thick with art, music and culture, despite the pervading drizzle.
Havana, like most of Cuba, has relatively few cars, given its population. Most of the cars on the road look like they belong in a 1950s mobster movie... at least from the outside. The other ubiquitous make and model is the Soviet-era Lada. A few European and other "modern" motorized vehicles are starting to find their way onto the island, but these are well beyond the financial possibility of the average Cuban. Many walk or bike, and those who do own cars have become adept at creatively maintaining their vintage models!
In addition to cars, a number of covered bike- and moped-taxis serve smaller groups of tourists. Collectivo taxis offer a sort of Cuban "Uber Pool" solution, with many locals heading in roughly the same direction cramming into a larger car.
As in Varadaro, there is a "public" bus for tourists (5 CUC, about $7 CAD), and then there is the really public bus, which tourists do not use, which one pays for in local pesos unobtainable to tourists, at a rate of about 10 cents a person, and which we totally rode, I having wisely brought a few toys and some hard-to-get decent chocolate with me from Canada (in Cuba, it is not uncommon to see a local bus driver with his kid on his lap, and this was the case with the driver who's bus we happened on, and so I supplemented my offering of pesos with said Canadian chocolate and everyone was happy).
Two long-haired blond boys stood out like sore thumbs on the bus, and the locals looked at us with a mixture of curiosity and mild annoyance, but we took it in stride, and rode for as long as I dared, keeping one eye on the window to assess the surroundings, and the other eye on my guide book map, as I did not have a bus route map, and knew therefore that wherever we went, we'd either have to walk back or use some of our dwindling funds for a taxi.
Quite possibly my favourite part of riding the public buses (which we ended up doing about three times in total during our 24 hour sojourn in the city) was the insight we got into Cuban "collective" culture, in terms of child minding: At one point, a lady got on with her baby. In general, one gives up one's seat to a mother with young child, and also to the elderly. An elderly lady was sitting nearby; she reached out to the mother, and without a second's hesitation, the mother passed the infant off to this complete stranger, who held the child on her lap until it was time for the mom to get off, at which point she passed the baby back to the lady, who then got off.
It was such a non-issue, just a matter-of-fact occurance; the baby was heavy, the old lady wasn't giving up her seat, but she was taking the baby so the mom didn't have to balance the kid on her hip throughout the jostling bus ride. Amazing!
Then there was Copelia, the ice cream parlour named after the ballet. Our Casa was about a 25 minute walk from the park, and we visited (though, too shy to join the local line, we went obediently as directed by the park guards to the tourist counter).
No trip to Havana is complete without checking out the Mafia connection... the morning of our departure, we took advantage of the free tour at the Hotel Nacional, site of the Havana Conference, a "business meeting" of the Sicilian and American Mafia some years ago.
The hotel also boasts an impressive. star-studded, international guest list, and we got to soak up a little of this history thanks to our knowledgeable and detail-oriented tour guide.
Simon, who had been somewhat cranky due to the lousy weather (it was raining when we arrived in Havana, which curbed our ability to walk everywhere) and a canker sore in his mouth, insisted we go snorkeling. He had never gone, and decided we needed to go.
I had planned out our finances quite carefully, but had not considered connecting the snorkeling adventures to the Havana trip. In the end, however, doing just that seemed like the most feasible way to ensure we squeezed some off-resort snorkeling into our week-long trip, and so, at Simon's insistence and with a little negotiation on the part of our Casa host's father with the driver, we managed to combine our drive "home" (to Varadero) with a stop at an out-of-the-way little spot I had read about, regardless of the fact that we had not brought bathing suits with us to Havana.
While our driver and I enjoyed non-alcoholic piña coladas and played with the mangy beach dogs wandering around the bar, Alex and Simon stripped down to their underwear, put on the battered old life jackets the guide handed them, and set out to experience their first ever snorkeling adventure, led by a young man who showed me photos of his own children as well as his snorkeling guide license to assure me my kids were in good hands.
Asked later how they liked it, Alex dreamily responded, "it was magic"!
After our return from Havana, the overcast skies continued to plague our beach holiday, so we determined to travel off the resort strip, and into the little tourist town of Varadero for the morning. We packed some snacks and water, as well as a few tradeable items, just in case, and wandered out to the main road to wait for the $5 tourist bus.
It wasn't long until the local bus, headed into town to pick up a larger group, pulled over and offered us a ride for less than it would have cost us for all three on the "proper" bus. After some haggling, we negotiated an even better price, and the boys and I got onto the bus, celebrating our unexpected luck at finding this better deal. (In the end, we didn't pay a dime for our ride, as it turned out the driver had grandkids, and happily accepted our offer of toys and chocolate in lieu of cash!)
After hanging our with some freely wandering chickens in the main square, we walked across a bridge into an industrial part of town. It was sweltering, so we soon headed back to the tourist zone, and ended up on a secluded part of the beach, where we buried our water and bags in the cool sand, and stripped down for another underwear swim in the ocean (albeit this time sans snorkel gear)!
The boys wanted to ride what Simon called a "helmet cab", so after drying off while walking along the beach a little, we hitched a ride for a few blocks in one of the so-called "coco cabs", again trading hard-to-come-by-in-Cuba goods for services.
We ate our snacks, and also visited a local rum outlet so that I could pick up a few souvenirs. Then we caught a ride in a vintage taxi back to our hotel resort. Simon said it was his favourite day; he loved the "helmet cab". (When I pressed him, he said he enjoyed the snorkeling, but that "it was stressful", hehe.)
All in all, I found our day trip to Varadero less eventful than our Havana adventure, but I am nevertheless glad we got to see the town.
As is often the case in Cuban resorts, you go for the sunshine, the sandy beaches, the ocean... not so much for the food! Playa de Oro is no exception. The buffet was repetitive but manageable; we'd brought our own syrup, ketchup and peanut butter. Bringing our own teabags turned out to have been a wise idea, too! Black pepper was frequently in short supply as was any kind of decent salad dressing, but we did not starve.
The pasta bar was a hit with the kids (we learned to line up early for dinner to avoid long waits later on), and there were three a-la-cart restaurants, where one was served a variation of the food available at the buffet. We made reservations at the Cuban beach cafe and also ate at the pool-side Italian restaurant one night, where we were given what I thought were fancy virgin drinks, but which turned out to be alcoholic beverages, which I did not discover until the boys had already taken two generous swigs. (The end of that story is that after refraining from imbibing for nearly the whole week, I found myself drinking THREE drinks in one sitting!!!)
Our room, while fairly comfortable, was average at best; the bathroom smelled of mildew, and the towels were rarely changed (though upon leaving a tip for the cleaner, we came back to our room to find the old towels had been creatively fashioned into swans and sea monsters).
In the evenings, various sorts of entertainment were offered: Circuses, dance bands and live concerts. Most of the shows ran quite late, but we did stay up to catch the pool show, which featured synchronized swimming acts, each introduced in five languages -- Spanish, German, English, French and Russian -- by one of the hotel staff.
The resort's main attraction was of course the beach. The ocean was amazingly warm, and so many shades of blue and green (such different shades than in PEI, I marveled!) Alex commented that he finally understood how some people could just sit around on the beach all day, which is exactly what we did on two or three of the days... coming early, I would tip the beach guy to wipe down and reserve a spot for us, and then we'd leave a few items on our lounge chairs, and he would look after them if we went up to the buffet for lunch or whatever.
We would swim, nap, read, play cards, chat with the locals (the boys traded some of their t-shirts and shoes for seashells)... one time we even saw a fellow with a pelican following along behind him!
For those of us lucky enough to be tourists on vacation, it was a little piece of paradise.
As we found out while wandering about on one of our final days in Cuba, our resort was located right next door to a delfinario. We saw and heard the beautiful creatures swimming in the lagoon while we were out walking one evening (the delfinario keeps its dolphins in what is called "semi-captivity"), and decided on our last day to go and catch a show.
Although the place is a bit dated, it's pretty cheap if you don't actually go swimming with the dolphins and just watch the show instead, and it was amazing to interact with these social creatures even from afar.
Still To Do...
Cuba is changing rapidly. With the Americans arriving on the scene, the economy and culture is already shifting. I am eager to visit again while some of the "old Cuba" is still preserved. Next time I would bring some dog and cat treats (for all the strays) and add black pepper to my arsenal of home comforts. I also want to visit Habana Veijo, which I did not get a chance to do. And I will definitely catch the Buena Vista Social Club show the next time I go.
Sitting here in my Apt in Toronto on an unseasonably cold, rainy, miserably May evening, I think back fondly to our short by poignant week in warm, sunny Cuba this past January. I am hopeful of a return visit sometime in the not too distant future!
You might think that in a lesbian family, Mothers' Day is kind of a big deal. Two moms, right?! But having come out later in life, I never got to experience first-hand that lovely, two-mom relationship I often admire with some envy when I come across a young family lead by two women.
My co-parent didn't arrive on the scene until my kids -- who still have a regular relationship with their dad -- were 6 years old. (They're 13 now!)
And although they often joke that she is the best "Second Mother" (not "second best", they explain) around, and even tell her that she is the only step-mom they have ("no questions asked", as one kid affirmed in writing in his mothers' day card to her this morning), she is, still, after all, "just" a step-parent, with all the self-imposed guilt and other emotional drama that entails.
In terms of my relationship with my own mother, that also comprises its fair share of emotional drama: Orphaned at 21, I don't have any instagram-worthy photos to share of my beautiful adult relationship with my mother, because I don't have one.
So I'll spend today's blog post instead sharing my reflections about some observations I had the unique opportunity to make this weekend, while attending a Girls CAN Fly event at a nearby airport.
Canadian Aviation Pride, an organization I volunteer with, had been asked to set up a booth in the hangar.
We did our usual assortment of pre-made rainbow airplane necklaces to sell, and also set out other beads so that kids and their families could make their own necklaces, rainbow or otherwise, before or after their flight. This afforded me the opportunity to observe how families would "help" especially their youngest children with a self-chosen task.
With so many colourful beads on display, most children wanted to string their own necklaces, and it was remarkable how many parents simply could not let their 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds do the fine motor practice until they worked it out. Each necklace included a chain and 6 beads, and barely a child got to the third bead before a well-meaning parent took over the task and just did it for them.
The first steps to the learned helplessness I witnessed so very often in my middle school classrooms!
Watching a child struggle with a task is hard, no question, but with encouragement and time, most children can complete many "difficult" tasks on their own or with limited support, and the research shows that it is actually good for them to engage in this struggle.
The other thing that amazed me was how many of the parents basically vetoed their kids' choices of bead colour, style and placement in order to make the necklace as they (the parent) thought it ought to be, rather than how the child herself envisioned it. I kid you not, I witnessed one parent keep telling his kid to choose different beads than she was choosing, because that would "look better", and watched in amazement while another dad fully removed four of his daughter's six beads, and replace them with different ones, to make a pattern he thought looked better!
It's easy to watch and judge, of course, and so I spent the rest of the weekend pondering my own influences on my kids... of course I want to guide them and expose them to things I deem "valuable", but am I making sure to honour their individual choices as well, even if they differ from my own?
Working so much with the Kindergarten Program this year in my new job, I am well familiar with how important it is for teachers to support students' development of their own identities as learners. I wonder how well I have done with this as a parent? I am determined to renew my commitment to developing my own children's resilience, strength and confidence!
Anyone in the know when it comes quadricycles in the GTA has heard by now that (after 32 years) the Toronto Island Cycle Rental is going out of business. Just this past week I read that they would be selling off their inventory -- including over 40 quads -- over the Easter weekend.
On a whim, I decided we had to have one!
I mean, really, who wouldn't jump at the chance to own a little piece of Toronto Island history? And hey, we live right on the lakefront cycle path -- what an opportunity!
Even the kids were game to contribute a significant chunk of their own money, and once I had convinced my partner and our family friend that we'd be able to actually get the thing home and not get stuck and kick it into the lake after the first km pedaling back, I began planning my strategy.
Easter weekend begins on Good Friday. Lots of people off work; there was bound to be a line-up!
After a bit of googling, I discovered that there seemed to be some sort of a pre-sale the Sunday before, weather permitting, from 2-4 p.m. I vowed to be there promptly at 2 p.m., cash in hand.
I knew that the older quadricyles that were 4-seaters were going for $800 - 1000, and that was our budget (there was also a handful of new ones, a year old, for $3000, but that was too rich for our blood).
The Early Bird
Imagine our surprise, then, when we arrived at the ferry dock an hour beforehand and were greeted by the sight of multiple disembarking passengers already riding their "new" quads off the Wards Island Ferry (winter schedule still, no Centre ferry yet) and into the city!!!
How had these people found out about the secret pre-sale and snuck their way in early? Outrageous!
Undeterred, I led the way onto the boat, the dog (we had elected to bring her along) eagerly sniffing to the air beside us, delighted at the unfamiliar but not unwelcome smell of adventure.
Alas, as we got off the ferry at Wards, we observed an additional quantity of the much-coveted rachity old machines now belovedly being pedaled by their jubilant new owners, and my heart began to sink. Maybe we were too late, I worried, doing some quick mental calculations about what we had seen, and how many -- roughly -- I knew there to be for sale.
My fears were confirmed when I chatted with a single rider in a faded canopy-covered two-seater who pedaled slowly past me down the way as she confirmed that the only rides still being peddled up the path were three of the newer 4-seaters at $3000 a piece, and several single bikes.
Having come this far, we marched on towards Centre, where my informant's facts were tragically upheld.
After looking longingly at the $3000 machines (there were only two left now), and briefly considering a splurge, I defeatedly slumped onto a bench along the path across from the bike shop, next to my partner and our doggie, and watched other hopefuls equally disappointed as they eagerly approached the stand and then became aware that their whimsical dream was not to come to fruition today.
Lunch, Playground and Ferry
By now, the boys had also arrived on the Island (they'd come down and met our friend after a morning commitment elsewhere in the city), and my partner, our dog and I walked back along the path towards the Wards Island Ferry Docks to meet them for a quick stop at the pirate playground and the picnic lunch we were supposed to have enjoyed while pedaling back on our new and unusual treasure.
We then joined other early spring island visitors for the ride back to the city, quadricycle-less, but $800 richer than we would have been, had our venture been "successful".
We took some comfort in knowing that at least the dawg had fun!
Some might say we dodged a bullet, and I agree that after the initial excitement of riding with friends around the neighbourhood bike path, a quadricycle would likely have become an underused toy, challenging to store and maintain.
But I would be lying if I said I wasn't just a wee bit sad about not getting one!
As a classroom teacher, I often referred to the students in the classes I taught as "my kids".
This proprietary label stemmed primarily, I believed, from a place of love and caring. So dedicated was I to my chosen profession, that it just sort of slipped out whenever I was sharing a funny anecdote from -- or telling about a lesson that had transpired in -- my classroom.
With the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Report in 2015, and as a result of the subsequent recommendations and calls to action, I have more recently availed myself of several opportunities to learn about the systemic cultural genocide our government attempted against its country's first peoples.
Of particular horrific fascination for me has been the unearthing of grisly facts about the Residential School System in Canada, a system through which the government of Canada removed -- against their or their families' wills -- school-aged children from their homes, and sent them to overnight schools to unlearn their language, their culture, their identities (and often, to be victims of physical, sexual and/or emotional assault). This happened for several decades.
The inter-generational trauma that resulted is well documented, as the FNMI children which the primarily white Anglo-Saxon patriarchal government claimed as their own grew into a generation of young adults who had little to no understanding of who they were as parents, as indigenous Canadians, as human beings, even.
And those are the ones who survived the mass abduction.
Discrimination Against Children on Reserve
A close second topic of horrific interest for me has been the story of Cindy Blackstock and the "successful" court case against the federal government.
I write successful in quotation marks because even though after nearly a decade of struggle with the courts, the case claiming the government was systemically discriminating against children on reserve was finally heard, and a judge found the government guilty, children (and their families) living on reserve continue to experience a different (lower) level of child welfare service than their off-reserve counterparts.
Despite the issuing of a second compliance order by the courts!
(If you want to learn more about this story, check out the film, "We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice", directed by the graceful yet powerful, 80-something-year-old Alanis Obomsawin, herself a survivor of the system.)
These two lessons in particular have made me reflect on my own use of "my" when describing the children in my care as a classroom educator over the years.
In a recent slide deck some colleagues and I had prepared for a professional learning session we were planning, we used the heading, "What we Believe about Our Children", intending to facilitate a conversation about the positive messages we, provincially, were collaborating on, based on the program document we were promoting.
Our director drew our attention to the use of the word "our".
An interesting discussion ensued with the team, about our intent in using the word, vs the possible perception by people for whom a government appropriation of children gone wrong was all too close in the collective memory.
Despite our aim in sharing the message that educating our province's children was a collective responsibility, a partnership that we should take very seriously, not underestimating their gifts, talents and competencies, I understood our Director's concern: In the Kantian sense here, impact outweighs intent, regardless of how benevolent that intent is!
On my desk at work, I have many photos of children. The oldest is a class photo from my third year of teaching, when I had the great privilege of spending my days with students in Grades 1-8 who were learning English. The photo was taken on the steps of the Butterfly Conservatory in Niagara, on a cross-grade field trip I had convinced my principal at the time was absolutely necessary in order to build a sense of community amongst the often-ostracized members of our school's ESL population. Gazing in wonder at the butterflies surrounding them, the little ones sat obediently for the camera (their middle school counterparts were in a different section of the building at the time). On the bus ride home, most of them fell asleep in the laps of their older peers!
The second group photo on my desk is also from the early part of my career, a shot from picture day at school, this time a contained class of students in Grades 1-3, all of whom had been identified as having special learning needs. Not long after that photo was taken, one of the youngest students in the class came to me after having spent a few period in another classroom... she was perplexed: "Are we the only children who sit on balls?" she asked in bewilderment, referring to the class set of therapy balls the parents had purchased for me at the end of the previous school year, after seeing the positive impact of daily movement on their childrens' ability to focus. It had never dawned on the dear little sweetie that the students in other classes might sit on "normal" chairs! (As a quirky aside, I met a former classmate of hers, now in her 20s, in an Uberpool earlier this year.)
The third group of children that has been immortalized in a frame on my desk is perhaps the most unique: A group of no fewer than 9 sets of multiples (well, 8.5; one twin was home sick) -- with parental permission, I had invited a board photographer to the school to capture on camera the phenomenon of a twinning rate that was more than double the norm! The 18 of us crowded into my office (I was an acting VP at the time) to take the group shot that still sits on my desk 10 years later, and then the photographer took individual headshots of each twin, which we later made into a matching game; one went home with each kid, and a few copies stayed in the school library. (The missing twin was monozygotic, so we just took two photos of his brother!)
I recognize now that while each of children in these photos holds a special place in my heart, as do the many students I have taught since then, they are not "my" children. They are kids who were -- for a short time -- entrusted to my care by families who courageously sent them off to me and my colleagues. Sometimes we did a pretty good job of earning that obligatory trust. Other times, I have no doubt we let them down.
Alex and Simon
The only real photos of my kids on my desk are the ones of two little blond boys (sometimes mistaken for girls, due to the length of their locks).
One small yellow frame depicts a three-year-old painting at the kitchen table in the old house, his chubby fingers gripping the brush purposefully. A nearby frame of equal size (but in blue) shows his brother sitting at the outdoor dining table at a friend's cottage, a giant sausage he'll never eat on the plate in front of him.
An unframed print of one with the other in a headlock, visible through the open door of their playhouse on PEI sticks to the magnetic door of one of my cabinets. On another cabinet door, behold one photo of a boy standing while his brother insists on lying down on the ground near the lighthouse on the island's south shore. And then there are two small black and white shots from photo day at Simon and Alex's school in Toronto, taken a long time ago -- Grade 2, maybe?
The best of intentions aside, these are the photos of my real kids, the only children I have the right to claim publicly as my own. And even that is changing as they grow older and become more and more their own people, and less and less "my" children.
I got to hang out with some secondary school teachers this past week, and it really made me more empathetic to the cause of my secondary colleagues who want to pursue equitable assessment practices in their classrooms but find themselves running into roadblocks.
Assessment is a big, often anxiety-inducing topic. So is equity. Put them together and you get a giant behemoth of an issue in public education! I’ve written about both subtopics discretely as well as the behemoth in the past, but today I want to bring to light a very particular issue about equity and assessment that is in some ways unique to secondary (and post-secondary) education.
Integration Preamble: The Generalist
As an elementary school teacher I found integration of subject areas both delightful and necessary in my teaching, in order to “cover” the many curriculum documents I had to ultimately report on students' achievement of. With few rare exceptions, my elementary classroom teaching experience was that of a generalist rather than a specialist, and this meant that I would typically see one "main" group of students for most of the school day. This arrangement made it possible me to integrate quite easily.
A cross-curricular, integrative approach to teaching and learning allowed for pedagogical practice that was responsive to both student learning needs and interests, and also emerging hot topics in the media.
An example that springs readily to mind was the Syrian refugee inquiry my instructional coach and I facilitated my Grade 6s through when then-prime-ministerial candidate Justin Trudeau pledged to usher in a specified number of refugees by a certain date if elected. So many of my students that year came from the middle east, and so their interest to engage with this news topic was keen.
By examining the context of many refugees’ journeys from their homes, and their subsequent arrival in far away places like Canada, we expanded our vocabularies, increased our writing skills and commitment, explored math concepts like measurement and unit rate, and engaged with social studies curriculum expectations addressing the stories, contributions and systemic struggles of different people groups in Canada. By doing much of our research watching videos (many in Arabic with English subtitles) and using photos from news articles, my class and I were also able to attend to a number of media literacy expectations from the Language curriculum.
Teaching in this way has become second nature to me, and I find ways to differentiate assessment tools and opportunities in ways that meet the learning needs and leverage the affinities of my students, while still being grounded in criteria that we co-construct to meet our overarching learning goal(s). It’s an ever-evolving instructional design that is both equitable and robust.
My secondary colleagues, by contrast, often teach one specific course, allowing them the luxury of focusing on one subject.
Unencumbered by the need to report on 12 or more subject strands, they can and often do become experts in their field, zeroing in on the overall and specific expectations of the curriculum document that forms the foundation of their particular course.
As I am discovering while working with my secondary colleagues, it is often considered best practice (and indeed, some schools or boards may have a policy that insists on this) to share a course outline, with specific assessment dates, with students at the outset of a course in high school.
Some course outlines even include the exact percentage each assignment and/or test will be worth.
The thinking is something along the lines of “by making sure students know ahead of time when and how they will be evaluated, we are giving everyone the same shot at getting good marks”.
As we know, however, giving everyone the same thing does not constitute an equitable system. And, while I applaud the noble intentions behind providing an overview of what a student (and her family) can anticipate in a given course, the idea of such a "fixed" approach to assessment makes me a bit tense.
As is becoming more and more clear to me (both in my last few years as a classroom educator and in my current role as an Education Officer with the Ministry of Ed), the power of Assessment AS Learning can only really be harnessed effectively if students are heavily involved in co-constructing success criteria with their teachers, and if the teacher allows these criteria to emerge throughout a teaching and learning cycle.
While a teacher should certainly create and share a curriculum-based learning goal with his students at the outset of an inquiry or a unit of study, and would do well to have criteria in mind ahead of time, an authentic learning climate will engage students in such a way that the students feel they truly have at least some ownership in the classroom, and this ownership manifests itself very effectively when they can contribute to the co-creation and ongoing editing of success criteria to meet a learning goal throughout a course or unit of study.
If student learning is to improve according to the principles of Growing Success (our province's assessment policy), teacher, peer and self feedback must not only describe a student's progression towards an established learning goal as described by the criteria, but the student much also be allowed to act on this feedback to improve his performance and demonstrated achievement of said goal.
From what I can see, and based on my experiences with the average learner, pre-communicating assessment (evaluation, really) dates and assignments inhibits a growth mindset stance to learning: Why would a student take seriously descriptive feedback throughout the learning cycle if in fact "it doesn't count" as part of their much-coveted final mark?
Gleaning a better understanding of the existing culture and practice in many secondary schools is helping me to appreciate the hurdles faced by my high school colleagues when they are prodded by assessment workshop keeners like me to be "responsive" in their assessment and instruction practices with students!
A Broader Understanding of Equity
Communicating ahead of time with students about course expectations, assessment practices and the like are an important part of a "no surprises" equitable approaches diet for teachers and their students. However, I would argue that in order to use assessment for and as learning effectively, and establish -- as Growing Success calls it -- a climate that is "fair, transparent, and equitable for all students", we need to broaden our understanding of what it means to adopt an equity perspective when it comes to assessment.
Inviting students into the conversation about what a specific learning goal might look, sound and feel like when demonstrated by the learner is one piece of the puzzle. Allowing enough open-endedness in a course or class that criteria can be properly co-developed, refined and edited as needed, and that feedback based on said criteria can be given, received and applied throughout the learning cycle before a final grade is determined, is another important piece, and one that may require significant rethinking of how far in advance (if ever!) a course outline is etched in stone.
We can't change the world, says a particularly fatalistic-minded colleague of mine, but we can and should improve the world of those in our immediate sphere of influence.
I believe making the world a better place for the students in our care begins with an equity stance when it comes to learning and assessment. Lucky me in my job I am surrounded by deep thinkers and experienced educators who will have lots to say about this matter. I look forward to seeking their wisdom as I consider how best to preach the messages in Growing Success in ways that honour and respectively stretch (where required) the existing culture of secondary school educators.
My kids have their first "part time job": Recently accepted as part of an ongoing nutrition study at Ryerson, Alex and Simon have committed to trekking downtown for the next several weekends to spend 4 hour stretches at the nutrition lab.
When I was their age, I was pushing a coffee cart around the basement of a smoky bingo hall... Instead of drawing coffee, the boys are drawing blood samples -- their own; 2-3 drops every 40 minutes or so -- and filling in mood and hunger surveys over the course of their 4 hour visit each week to be analysed by a team of researchers.
The monetary compensation for their efforts is comparable to my bingo hall coffee cart adventures, if one accounts for inflation. Only, while I would try and sneak a chocolate bar here and there, they actually get fed breakfast and an all-you-can-eat pizza lunch as part of their "work". These are the kind of perks of the job I did not experience until a few years later, when my Sunday mornings were spent opening the breakfast shift at my local McDonald's!
It's intriguing how much money drives their desire to participate; when I was 12, I was still deep into my sticker collection. My minuscule paycheques primarily supported my junk food addiction and visits to the just-emerging dollar stores in the neighbourhood to buy new stickers or sticker albums. Theirs will be dedicated towards more lofty goals: Simon is saving for his own computer, and Alex wants a "Toronto Marijuana Leafs" jersey. Whereas I wanted a part time job less for the money and more for the social aspect of things (all my "cool" friends were getting jobs), it was the idea of a big chunk of coin at the end of the study that prompted Alex and Simon's interest in giving up large portions of their "free time"!
Like I was at their age, the boys are involved in innumerable extracurricular adventures, from various instrumental and vocal musical endeavours , to rock-climbing and dance, to making art and reading books.
Unlike me at their age, they also have 2-hour commute to and from school each day, and access to an iPad, video games and the internet. It will be interesting to see how these additional demands on their time influence the choices they make when it comes to part time jobs and social commitments in the years ahead.
Alex and Simon are at the cusp of adolescence; they turn 13 in about a month. As I have since they were born, I look forward to the next stage of firsts, and will inevitably compare them to my own increasingly-distant experiences in kind.
After writing for several teacher and multiple birth publications, including ETFO's Voice Magazine, Multiple Moments, and the Bulletwin, Vera turned her written attention to prolific blogging for some years, including BiB, "Learn to Fly with Vera!" and SMARTbansho . Homeschooling 4 was her travel blog in Argentina. She now spends more time on her Instagram (@schalgzeug_usw) than her blog (pictures are worth a thousand words?!) Contact Vera by clicking the photo above.
The views expressed on this blog are the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of her family members or the position of her employer on the the issues she blogs about. These posts are intended to share resources, document family life, and encourage critical thought on a variety of subjects. They are not intended to cause harm to any individual or member of any group. By reading this blog and viewing this site, you agree to not hold Vera liable for any harm done by views expressed in this blog.