Thankfully, he did manage to capture quite a few details of the trip enroute, for example, his write up about La Habana, below...
There was also his recount of the snorkeling adventure at Playa Coral...
Although Alex was less resistant than Simon about working on his journal daily while in Cuba, the gig was up when we got home. The working copy of the journal was all I ever got out of him!
Thankfully, he did manage to capture quite a few details of the trip enroute, for example, his write up about La Habana, below...
There was also his commentary (albeit brief, i.e. "fine") about being unplugged:
(For the record, I do NOT "yell" at him "all the time" -- or ever, really -- to get off his device, lol!)
There was also his recount of the snorkeling adventure at Playa Coral...
His review of the resort was Trip Advisor worthy!
On the plane ride home, Alex summarized the trip nicely, but skipped the parts he decided he wouldn't be doing. Oh well, at least he's an honest writer!
During our recent stint in Cuba, I asked my two kids to complete a reflective journal each day. Simon, who had been the less delighted of the two about this prospect, wowed us all with his write up on return. In addition to typing several pages worth, he requested feedback and willingly returned to the project to to make changes based on that feedback.
His final results are below...
When we first got to Cuba, I saw a lot of green (plants and shrubbery). Because of these plants, I smelled extremely fresh air. However, during the trip I got used to it so I didn't notice it as much, but when we got back to Toronto, I could smell the difference. In Toronto, the air smells more industrial. Saying this though, I have to remember that the taste of the food in Cuba was a bit bland but the food at the resort was terrible. All the food was hard, bland, soft, etc etc... . They even ruined chicken!
One thing I noticed was that there were many different races. There wasn’t really one noticeable majority because there were many colours of people, black, latino, white; you name it! I was surprised by this because I thought all the Cubans would be Latino.
So those were my first impressions on Cuba but let me tell you more about the Resort. Our room was pretty cold (colder than the air outside). Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that we could just change the temperature of the room until over halfway through our trip . Uggh!
The room had two double beds and a cot that the cleaning staff brought in for one of us to sleep on. The walls of the room were dark blue.
The pool was cold so we didn’t really swim in it other than the first day. However, never mind the pool, because the beach was almost perfect(the only problem was the salt water). I quote Alex when I say “the beach was very salty and it was disgusting to accidentally swallow water. There were also lots of straw umbrellas and plastic chairs to have relaxation at its best.”
I already talked about how bad the food was so never mind that, however, let me talk about the lobby. The lobby was very big. To plant a good picture in your mind, let me describe how it looked. It had three levels, the main level which has the front desk, washrooms, cafe, gift shop, entrance, seating area, and other smaller details. The second level has a stage for the band (which was one of the best ones I’ve ever heard) and seating area. The third level has two restaurants, a bar, and seating area. The place didn’t have a roof but rather a huge, green covering un attached made of stone and wood with beams supporting it. The lobby also had a green ramp coming down from the third level all the way down to the main level (the ramp also opened up at the second level) and a lot of potted plants.
Before we got there I thought the city would be really old because Mom kept saying “Havana is an old historical city.” However, when we got on the tour bus going to Havana, I learned some real facts. I already knew that it’s the capital city but I didn’t know that the city is home to three million people which is about one fourth of the country's eleven million residents.
When we got there, i realised that the city was crowded and LOUD! Forget New York, this is the real city that never sleeps. People were up partying all night.
Soon enough we met our host. They had a really nice house (they were probably pretty rich for Cuban standards). Everything was neat, tidy, and they even had a balcony with a nice view of the street below. I thought “Yes, Score” until they showed us the rickety spiral staircase behind us. At the top of those stairs was our place (the place ended up being nicer than, or as nice as, theirs with three beds spread across two bedrooms, two balconies, other living necessities, and a microwave that might explode at any moment so no need to worry). Dam!
The Town of Varadero
Other than Havana we also visited the town of Varadero although, we did not stay there overnight.
While most of our rides to places cost money, we ended up getting a free ride there after haggling with our bus driver (we did give him toys, hygiene items, and clothes though so it wasn’t exactly free). When we got to the town of Varadero, the first thing we did was buy my friend Muneeb a mini Baseball Bat tourist item because he loves bat sports. Then, we walked around an industrial part of town that my Mom said was allegedly a residential area. Heh, heh, No! Next, we went to a local art market (really it was just kind of a tourist market, in fact, the whole town was infested with tourists). After that, we rode in a taxi shaped like a helmet to one of the local beaches and swam in the clean and clear water there. The taxi was one of my favourite parts of the entire trip partially because of all the fresh air in my face as we zoomed through the streets. Finally, we took an old fashioned taxi car home, which we payed for (something different about Cuba compared to most places is that most of the cars there are old fashioned and most of the people who own cars there are cabbies because very few people have a car there).
Other Fun Activities
Some other things we did were snorkelling and seeing a dolphin show. First, I’m going to talk about snorkelling. This was the first time I've been snorkelling. I really enjoyed it. We saw lots of fish and various different colours and types of coral. Our guide even showed us a starfish! He also gave us a sea urchin but in return we gave him clothing. One thing I didn't enjoy about snorkelling was that I had to keep my legs super stiff in order for the coral and sea life to not rub against my legs.
While Alex and I were Snorkelling, our Mom had her own adventure. Allegedly she bought herself and our driver a pin encalada then watched us snorkel.
Later, we went to a dolphinarium to see a dolphin show. The dolphins did cool stuff like dancing and balancing things on there nose. They also jumped through hoops, shot basket balls, and gave high fives to the trainers. All of that aside though because the star of the show was a little baby dolphin that kept smiling, laughing, and overall just being bad.
Life without Internet
It was very difficult for me not to have internet for two reasons.
First of all, I couldn’t watch youtube or do a lot of things I like to do. However, my second reason was that I felt like I couldn't show my Mom my full potential for documenting our trip. As it is I type as slow as Molasses but writing, OMG! I was being sloppy with my work because I felt that it would be bad anyway. I’m hoping that after reading this my Mom will see my full potential (I know she does, but it will still feel good to complete this).
All of that aside though, what I did like about not having internet was that I was more observant because I wasn’t just thinking about getting back to my screen. I felt like I enjoyed this trip more than any I’ve ever gone on before.
To conclude this part, I would like to say that I think people should take a break from internet for a straight twenty-four hours every two months.
Before I end off this article I would like to give anyone planning on going to Cuba a huge tip. GO SOON because times are changing. The leader of Cuba Fidel Castro has just passed away meaning anything can happen (including the price of things in Cuba) so go now!
When my mother and grandmother used to travel with me a hundred years ago before the omnipresence of smartphones and social media (heck, the Internet was not even a “thing” yet!), we’d pack our bags and head out of the country for two weeks or longer.
The only contact we’d have with the folks back home was a postcard here and there, and sometimes maybe one long distance phone call just to let everyone know we’d arrived safely or something. There were no Facebook updates, Instagram photos or Twitter hashtags - people back home simply had to wait for the in-person update when we got back home at the end of the trip.
The payoff for this was that while traveling, we were fully immersed in the moment, conscious of the experiences we were having and the people we were having them with.
Unless you want to spend silly amounts of time and money surfing ridiculously slow internet the lobby of your dilapidated hotel, Cuba offers an opportunity to go “old school” for your vacation, as ubiquitous and accessible wifi is still an emerging concept here.
And that’s just what we did, my boys and I.
Alex and Simon and I left our devices at home when we headed out the door to the airport at 3:30 a.m. last Friday morning, and I’m grateful that we did so.
I should preface my praises for disconnecting with an admission that I had some pretty significant anxiety the first 48 hours without my smartphone.
For starters, feeling for that little key to the world in my pocket at all times has become almost a subconscious habit. I literally would reach for my iPhone multiple times a day: While standing in line at the airport, while waiting for the hotel shuttle bus to arrive at the airport, and at many other times once at the resort, just to check email, texts or update my Instagram feed. It was a surprise to me every time at first that the phone wasn't there!
Another thing I missed was the ability to look things up in a flash:
With the exception of the latter fact, which we were able to find out fairly quickly by looking at one of the maps in our Lonely Planet Cuba Guide and by simply walking around after checking in with our Casa owner, all my “need to know” questions had to wait until I could find someone to engage with who spoke enough English and knew more about Cuba than where the nearest bar was at the all-inclusive resort. Or wait until our return to Canada and the relatively fast, free wifi we enjoy here.
Finally, being out of text, phone or email range from my partner for a full week was a bit unnerving at first, since we’d never been apart for any length of time without some sort of digital access before. But “absence makes the heart grow fonder” as they say, and in the end, it was probably a good and healthy thing to have such a clearly demarked break from one another.
Being without my phone also meant having relatively little idea of what time it was, most of the time. Our resort lobby had a clock, as did the living room in the Havana Casa Particular where we spent a night, but other than that, we basically had to gauge what time it was by estimating the passage of time since our last confirmation, or checking -- in the morning and early evening -- by how bright it was outside.
That was a bit of a strange feeling at first, since I am so used to living by the clock (10-o-clock meeting, 2 p.m. deadline, 6 p.m. dinner, “family time” 7:30 - 8:15, kids’ tuck-in at 9, and so on).
But it didn’t take long to let go of the stringent schedule, and just respond to our mental and physical sense of what we “should” be doing at different points throughout the day.
Being free from daily reminders of all the lunacy going on in the world due to limited access to news of the latest racism, homophobia and misogyny in governments nearby was a welcome break.
After the initial awkwardness of feeling like we had to constantly know what time it was and whether anyone had texted us or updated their Youtube or Instagram feeds in the past three minutes, things started to get a whole lot better.
I began to read the book I had brought with me, and got so into it that I felt compelled to read aloud sections to the boys. They in turn became fascinated by Trevor Noah’s coming-of-age tales from Apartheid South Africa and demanded I keep reading more. This became a daily ritual, at the beach, by the pool, in the hotel lobby…
Cards were big, too: On the bus to Havana, in the brief moments we spent in our hotel room during transitions, and under the shade of our beach umbrella, the boys played everything from 21 to Crazy 8s to President, and I was obliged to join them.
We played more cards this week than in the past 12 months!
The best thing about being disconnected was that the daily digital distraction of the device was replaced by an ever-increasing, in-the-moment appreciation of the sights, sounds and other sensual flavours all around: The azures and aqua-marines of the Atlantic mesmerized me, and not just for a moment while I grabbed my phone to snap a photo to post on social media.
Nopes, not having the temptation of my digital device at my fingertips for a week meant I had the freedom to just stare out at the ocean and enjoy the view for a full ten minutes, or an hour, or all day, as I basically did at least once during our time in Varadero. It also meant that I would often glance up from my book, rather than being sucked in by the endless labyrinth that a screen and internet access provides, and enjoy magical moments that my 12-year-old twins were sharing with one another in the ocean, on the beach, doing card tricks, or engrossed in a good book together.
One facet of leaving my phone at home that had made me particularly nervous was the absence of a camera. But once on vacation, the boys and I quickly adopted the habit of capturing moments in our memories by pausing and holding our hands up to our face and making a “click” sound whenever something especially wondrous caught our eye.
We also spent some time each day completing the travel journals I had prepared for them ahead of time, though truth be told, Alex and I were considerably more enthusiastic about and committed to this little project than Simon was.
I am hoping to blog my own travel journal notes when I have some time over the coming week, so that the wonderful memories don’t fade too far into the mental abyss -- while more comprehensive than photos, memories do tend to have a far shorter lifespan than digital images!
I recognize that the Internet provides access to a global network of knowledge and perspective, and that these things often translate into power, and in general I am in strong favour of access as a fundamental human right in the 21 Century. Nevertheless, given our privileged position as westerners not living below the poverty line in a country where we have the luxury of consistent access, I feel that our brief hiatus from the world wide web was a beneficial one for us. The peace and reduced sense of urgency facilitated by the absence of constant connection to the outside was a feeling I'd not had in a long time.
All in all, I am in favour of such regular unpluggings, and am thinking of practical ways to make purposeful internet and social media breaks a part of our family’s regular routine.
So we're going to Cuba, and we're not taking any electronics.
The last time I was in Cuba was a hundred years ago, before the Special Period, and certainly well before smart phones and ubiquitous wifi (which is not so ubiquitous in Cuba anyway). I was about 12 years old, and I survived. Imagine!
So now I have two 12-year-olds who are virtually connected most if not all of the time. Given Cuba's limited (emerging?) connectivity and our short time (one week) there, we've decided it's best if we just go digitally naked for the week. In an age where one's personal digital devices is not only one's phone and wifi connection, but also one's map, alarm clock and camera, among other things, it's a pretty significant decision.
That being said, I'm not about to give up the opportunity to document our experiences, despite not having a camera or the ability to blog or post to Instagram in real time. I've made a lovely little workbook for the kids and for me to journal our adventures...
Truth be told, when I shared this little gem with Alex and Simon, it went over like a lead balloon.
"But we're supposed to be on VACATION!", Simon lamented.
He was particularly unimpressed with the suggested learning goal and success criteria I had noted on the inside cover. Their 7-year-old selves would have loved it, but their adolescent selves were not so easily bamboozled by fancy fonts and bold borders on clean, white printer paper.
Alex, at least, succumbed to the colourful cardstock and little sticky note tickets I introduced to sweeten the deal, and even got into the spirit of crafting his little workbook, posing obediently for a photo.
Simon was not so easily swayed, and the activist in him continued to protest in any way he could; three guesses which of the three booklets below is his!
For all his groaning and complaining, though, I know he's excited about the trip, and I'm willing to bet my bottom CUC that he'll jump on board within 24 hours of our 4 a.m. airport arrival on Friday and get on with the journal-ling. (In between swimming in the pool and the ocean, that is!)
P.S. Want to make your own travel journal for your kids or a student in your class who will be away? Download the word doc below, and customize the text to suit your needs. If you want to take it to the next level, arrange the pages so that you can print back to back and have a self contained booklet!
Our friend is in Washington.
Almost lost this friendship, we did, after the Trump election...
An ex-pat American, this friend is politically liberal, but the Trump election tried the best of them, it did. Many a liberal, especially (though not exclusively) of the white, straight, able-bodied male persuasion was challenged to understand the mindset of the very people they professed to support, stretched to come to terms with what it really means to be an ally.
I know our friendship was not the only one tried at this time. The media was full of stories of lost or shaky friendships as a result of this particular election.
Eventually we had dinner. And a conversation. And as our straight, white, able-bodied friend noted that while he supported LGBTQ rights, he would probably not wear the "Teaching with Pride" rainbow t-shirt I had given him last summer out and about (because he just "didn't want to bother answering people's questions"), he began to see that those of us who can't leave our proverbial t-shirts at home (because it's who we are in our sex, gender, skin colour, sexuality, physical ability, etc.) are sick to our stomachs with fear and disgust over the apparent mainstreaming of racism, homophobia and generalized bigotry that this election has shone a spotlight on.
Our friend started to see how those of us who were suddenly and forcefully being re-oppressed might feel a little impatient with those alleged allies who still didn't "get it".
What to do?
Our friend wondered what he should do to demonstrate his sincere support, and offered to make a donation to the Women's March, to help support those who needed to pay for travel expenses and lodging while there.
His thinking reminded me of a song by 1980's Christian pop icon Keith Green, who himself was fed up with people always sending money instead of acting themselves, and who insisted that Jesus Commands us to Go!
The Women's March is for Everyone
At first, our friend didn't understand that he could and should go to the march in Washington. Surely a straight white guy like him didn't belong there, he insisted. But in time, we convinced him that his presence would be very much welcomed and needed.
Yes, he was only one person, but so was every other individual person who was going to ultimately make up the more than half a million people that formed the Washington crowd (plus millions at sister marches and rallies all over the world)!
Yes he was a man, but women and children needed to see men who were not misogynistic pigs supporting them, and their mothers, and their sisters. Ditto for the "but I'm not black/gay/disabled" arguments.
Besides, we told him, it would be a great chance to him to reconnect with a long lost cousin and meet an internet friend from the Chess server who lived in the area.
And so, with a little more convincing (and considerable paper chasing -- it turned out his American passport had long expired, and his current Canadian passport was of little value in crossing the border), the old man finally bought an overpriced, last minute airline ticket and got going to his Motherland.
Those of us who stayed behind rallied together and got the man a pink pussy hat to take with him on his adventures. It's the least we could do.
First, a Little Sightseeing
Eager to get first-hand accounts of the happenings, we sent along strict instructions for our friend to update us with regular texts and photos.
He did not disappoint.
Arriving the day before the inauguration, he wandered about Washington, taking photos and sending his observations like a good little tourist...
First came an excited text and photo of the recently completed National Museum of African American History and Culture, behind which there was apparently "some tall pointy thing" to be seen.
Then this photo and caption:
Tall, pointy thing with flags.
Our friend was also excited to discover that he was not the only man wearing a pink hat, as the next text proclaimed that he had just "spotted a guy walking north along 17th St wearing a pussy hat"!
Following this came a series of three photos...
This is the first of a series of three, which should be looked at one at a time. I was not able to get close to the Lincoln Memorial, which was the one sightseeing thing I'd most wanted to see – they have it fenced off for some reason. But something good came of it anyway – trying to get to it brought me close to this thing. This is the way it looks when you enter through an entrance formed of two similar blocks of stone.
Then I walked a little bit further on and saw what you will see in the next picture.
Walk a little further around and you see this – an image of Martin Luther King Jr. carved out of the rock. He is a supposed to be holding a copy of the Declaration of Independence in his left hand. Apparently there is a bylaw in Washington that no statue can be taller than the 16 foot tall statue of Abraham Lincoln, but this is technically not a statue since it was carved out of a big piece of rock and only partially. This monument has only been there since 2011.
Arranged in a semicircle behind it are roughly 20 quotations of this hero, made in various places over a period of years. Next photo shows two of them.
Saturday morning came photos and commentary about the journey to the march.
We are at a subway station several miles outside of Washington DC, on our way in, and already there are many pussy hats on people. :-)
We the People
Soon after this, the text texts stopped, save for a quick observation that "thousands of people are wearing pussy hats". Indeed, both the photos that followed, and an Internet search on the Women's March revealed an encouraging sea of pink.
In attendance at the march were many celebrities, including Angela Davis, Michael Moore, and of course, Gloria Steinem. As the latter urged towards the end of her 10-minute call to action, "Make sure you introduce yourselves to each other and decide what we're gonna do tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow."
These marches were only the beginning of the revolution.
I'm glad you were there, Rick!
So, it’s Christmas holidays, and I finally, finally have three minutes to myself to catch up on some blogging.
As I have moved from a job (classroom teaching) that was about 80% “doing” and 20% thinking and writing to a job (education officer with the Ministry of Education) that is about 15% "doing” and 85% thinking and writing, I find myself with little steam left at the end of the day to keep up my personal blog.
Whereas I used to crank out about 4 blog posts a week, I’d be hard pressed to write 4 a month now. And even then, I’m finding they’re not particularly well written.
Never Enough Time for (Good) Writing
The trouble is in part time, it’s true… somehow, I managed to find a job that is at least as consuming as classroom teaching -- and that leaves me little time to blog. While I’m taking far less work home as a public servant than I did as a classroom teacher (or university instructor, instructional coach, workshop facilitator, etc.), I don’t typically arrive home until 6:30 or 7p.m. at which point it’s all I can do to get supper on the table, chase down kids’ school forms and homework and get everyone to bed before collapsing into a semi-comatose state in front of Instagram for an hour or so before bed myself.
Inspiration and Permission
The other issue is inspiration. As a classroom teacher, I was constantly excited to share what I was learning alongside my students and colleagues. But as an education officer with the ministry of ed., I seem to have far less to write about. Or, perhaps, less that I can write about, due to the political nature of my current job: Much of my work is “in-progress” and as such, not open for sharing outside of the office.
As a teacher, I was constantly reflecting on practice, and sharing stories of my successes and failures with my spouse, my children and my blog readers. But as a public servant, I had to take an oath of office that precluded me from sharing publicly pretty much anything I do before it formally becomes public. (And even then, my ability to comment on it is limited, as it should be.)
So what’s a novice writer to do, then? In what ways can I continue to hone my craft?
New Genres, New Skills
I’m finding it interesting to develop new skills as I spend so much of my time now crafting emails, memos and issue notes and a wide variety of genres I did not know even existed until this year!! From parent guides to teacher guides to internal and external FAQs, everything I write goes through multiple layers of approvals and is edited (sometimes heavily) by a variety of co-authors and editors before it is ever seen by an "end user". I consider purpose and audience like never before… and I realise daily new examples of how my understanding of said purposes and audiences may differ from others’ interpretations.
Evolution of Content… and Audience?
The amount of wordsmithing I am learning to do in my new job makes me considerably less prolific than I am used to being, but perhaps more nuanced in my writing. That’s a gift I hadn’t considered when I first accepted the job, and I am considering how best to apply my evolving written skills to my blog as that, too, evolves.
If I no longer write about classroom happenings, and can’t write about emerging themes in public education for an audience that was primarily comprised of teachers, then how can I instead develop new, possibly non-education-related content in a way that interests them (you), or begin perhaps to foster a new audience for my blog?
Maybe the bigger question now is, why am I even keeping a blog?
Some years ago, I read and wrote about an article from the The Atlantic, “Why I Blog”. I reflected on how the sometimes error-riddled writing in a blog post was -- as the article implied -- part of the genre of blogging, which is in some sense a less “published” style of writing than, say, a paper magazine article or a book, which has gone through many, many rounds of editing before it is ready for public consumption.
But do we blog for public consumption?
I know some teacher colleagues blog very intentionally to build their “brand” and develop a following. I’ve never done that, and don’t even know if I have a brand to speak of. (And now that I’m an OPS employee, I can’t really go seeking specific fame and fortune anyway!) No, for me, blogging has always been more of a public scrapbook, a place to store and reflect on photos or written memories of various facets of my family/personal and professional life, open for others to peek in on and laugh alongside me at my shortcomings and marvel at or cheer me on in my sporadic successes.
While I’ve occasionally kept more topic-specific blogs (such as my Learn to Fly with Vera or Smart Bansho sites) over the years, in general, everything’s kind of begun to merge together in one place for me over the past 24 months, and I’m okay with that. Afterall, why limit one’s eclectic life to a single theme or passion online?
So now I have to figure out -- if it’s important to me to maintain this online scrapbook -- how I can continue to make time for and find joy in writing my blog posts more regularly, despite or perhaps somehow enhanced by the inordinate amount of writing I already do as part of my new day job!
One advantage of being a public servant is that unlike when I was a classroom teacher, I get Remembrance Day off work. In an effort to keep it real, I decided to spend the morning at my old school, and asked my former principal if it would be okay for me to attend the Remembrance Day assembly there.
A former colleague who lives nearby was kind enough to drive me in, and even invited me into his classroom to do a little math lesson with his Grade sixes.
It was nice to see -- as I passed my old classroom -- that the new teacher there had left up my safe space sign and rainbow flag, and had even added a welcoming sign of her own just outside the classroom door. Definitely gave me a much needed boost after the discouraging world events earlier in the week!
I felt a little bit like a rock star as old friends greeted me with big smiles and open arms. It was so nice to see everyone again, and catch up -- I admired many reorganized classrooms and launched into excited conversations with teachers about their observations about the impact on their students of adopting a more democratic process around setting up the learning space, where the students themselves had had a say in how things evolved.
One teacher in particular had spent a great deal of time on this, and I wished I had thought to take photos in her classroom.
Not having classroom responsibilities of my own made visiting a unique experience indeed, and I joyfully cut paper squares in preparation for one teacher's lesson and offered to make some last-minute photocopies for another. And still I had time to spare to say hello to some old friends before the bell rang!
Paper Folding Math
Soon, though, it was time to get down to business, and my morning host and I did a brief run-through of the lesson we had planned, one of my favorite low floor - high ceiling tasks, courtesy of Jo Boaler's You Cubed site.
The learning goal they'd begun working on, he explained, was communication. More specifically, communicating thinking effectively in math. We brainstormed what this might look like, and together with the students, posted a few possible success criteria (later in the lesson, we added another, and were I coming back to this class another time, I might facilitate a conversation with the students around what a makes an answer "complete", ie how to craft a fulsome response, and add something like that to the list, too).
And then it was time for the lesson -- students worked in small groups to meet as many of the five challenges as they could, and one recorder in each group documented her peers' thinking on Edmodo, using a personal device or one of the class chrome books.
As the students worked on the tasks, my former colleague and I circulated, asking provoking questions ("What did you mean when you said, 'it's the same'?", and "How do you know 'all rectangles are squares'? Where could we check if that fact is true?") and providing descriptive feedback based on the criteria we had co-constructed.
Afterwards, I was able to check in and respond to some of the work students had posted online...
It was a pleasure to see how engaged they were with the task, and I was also excited to continue working on the math and with their communication about the math with them later, on Edmodo.
Impromptu Music Lesson
Afterwards, I was invited to join another friend and former colleague to do some co-teaching in music, as the teacher there was working with the choirs in the gym. As we were unable to locate the lesson plan after a cursory look around the room, we decided to facilitate an impromptu conversation about hip hop in different parts of the world.
We asked students to identify their favourite musical artists; perhaps not surprisingly for middle school aged kids, North American hip hop artists topped the list. Then I asked whether any of the students had seen the recently released film, Queen of Katwe, chronicling the rise of Ugandan chess contender Fiona Mutesi. Disappointingly few had seen it, or even heard about it, but I did not let that deter me.
Thank goodness for the Internet; my friend quickly pulled up the video on Youtube, and the students actually seemed to really like the song, engaging with the beat, and being drawn to the colourful local language the performers sing mainly in.
Spurred on by a comment during our subsequent discussion of some similarities and differences between #1 Spice and the type of hip hop they usually listen to, we got into a bit of a conversation of colonialism, and the effects on the arts and local culture in a colonized place. We were able to draw comparisons between those effects, and effects like the ones students had discussed previously in social studies, with the impact of the residential school system, for example, on the cultures of Indigenous people in Canada.
I loved where the students moved us with their interests and knowledge in our short 40 minutes together, and it make me miss working with Grade 7s!
Effective Classroom Management
I was reminded during my morning in the classroom, how critical a role classroom management plays in effective teaching and learning, and also how complex elementary school classroom teaching really is.
Whether you prefer to call it "creating a safe and inviting learning space" or "fostering an effective learning climate" or whatever, it's important, and without considerable time spent there before, during and after the students arrive on the scene, the rest of the package just falls apart. Having the luxury of contemplating and discussing in great detail one facet of education (such as assessment, for example) in relative isolation, or even two or three or seven factors, is a completely different reality than the 11 000 factors that come into play all at the same time in a real life classroom setting!
I know this of course in theory, but it was good to have a concrete reminder once again.
Lest we Forget
Next it was off to the gym, where the second of two multi-media Remembrance Day assemblies were in full swing. Although I have mixed personal feelings about the value of such observances, it was nevertheless comforting to be altogether in one place like that, with more or less a common goal for an hour.
The music teachers had worked hard with other staff on the assembly team, and the choirs sounded truly lovely. A highlight was listening to one Grade 7 girl sing -- I'd known her since Grade 3, and she had been an elective mute! What a beautiful, clear voice she had. My belief in the far-reaching benefits of music (and the importance of highly qualified music teachers!!) were affirmed.
The assembly also afforded me to opportunity to see some of my former students -- several of them rushed me when I walked into the gym, and I had to temper my own exuberance to see them, too, with a professional response that was appropriate for the occasion.
It was so encouraging to see so many happy, hopeful faces. I've had many classes and students near and dear to my hear, but my time at my last school was special in that it was a middle school that several lower elementary schools I had previously taught at fed into, and so some of the students I worked with last year had been known to me in some capacity or other since Grade One!
Shopping Mall Dates and Challenge Winners
Too soon my morning at school drew to a close -- after catching up with some colleagues and new Syrian arrivals in the ESL room over lunch, I signed out in the office and Uber Pooled to the mall, where I started in on a little Christmas shopping and met my partner so that we could buy her some decent winter boots.
After finding suitable footwear, we enjoyed an eclectic dinner together at the food court, complete with Japanese dessert and bubble tea.
Then we happened across a Metro, which I grabbed, eager to see whether my submission to their recent Arts Challenge had been published. What a pleasant surprise I had when I discovered that my "emoji epic", chronicling my burn, had not only been published, but also chosen as the contest winner!
Tired but happy from a long, full day, my girlfriend and I headed home with her boots, our bags, and the page from the local newspaper confirming my status as a winner!
I had a conversation the other day about the importance of teaching history from a less eurocentric perspective and through a more FNMI-focused lens. The teacher I was chatting with was lamenting
the lack of ready access to good FNMI resources for students and teachers.
As someone who grew up with little if any authentic teaching about FNMI realities in Canada, I shared her frustration: How do we begin teaching well about something we know so little of? Last year's Truth and Reconciliation Call to Action calls for the integration FNMI history, contributions, current events, etc. into the curriculum at all grade levels, and not just for FNMI students. We are to incorporate Indigenous knowledge and teaching methods, and we are to teach at all grade levels about the legacy of the residential school system, and its attempts at systemic eradication of an entire cultural group.
But how can we do it all justice without a firm understanding ourselves of FNMI realities?
I was embarrassed -- when talking to a colleague at the office later that afternoon (one who had recently published a relevant children's book about her grandmother's experiences with the residential school system) -- to be reminded that it is not just in History that we should be thinking about how to infuse FNMI realities into the curriculum; Dr Jenny Kay Dupuis, who happens to work in a cubicle a short walk from mine, patiently pointed out that there are many opportunities to highlight Canada's injustices to our FNMI people, and to integrate Indigenous knowledge into our teaching.
Jenny shared with me this guest blog post she co-authored, which includes a number of links to FNMI sites and other resources for teachers and students.
Coincidentally, she also happened to be interviewed by CBC's Matt Galloway that very morning, to share about her new children's picture book: I am Not a Number, by Second Story Press.
The audio interview is under 10 minutes, and provides listeners with some poignant historical information about the residential school system.
It would itself make an interesting study in oral language for students -- as I listened to it, I imagined immediately how I might use it with my students, were I still in a classroom: How effective is the interviewer (Galloway) in extracting information from the interviewee (Dr. Dupuis), etc.
It could perhaps serve as a catalyst for having students interview a family member about their own history, or write about a time when they first remember hearing an important family story. I could also see myself using this interview as a jumping off point for students to develop inquiry questions; the ESL teacher in me wants to begin by supplying a list of relevant vocabulary words: Grannie, Residential School, haircut, and so on, before students listen to the interview, and have them write a few sentences predicting what it will be about.
After talking with Jenny about her book, I offered to let her write a guest post on my blog (which I am still hoping she will do at some point), and sent her a follow up email saying "anything I can do to help!"
I realized after I sent the email that I was guilty of the same crimes that the T and R commission's report urges us to fight against: Although well-intentioned, my offer of help could easily be construed as demeaning; Jenny and her people don't need my "help". What they need is for me and my fellow non-FNMI Canadians to stop helping and start learning. Ugly history, beautiful history, troubling current events and discrimination, beautiful arts, culture, medical and other contributions... we need to take responsibility for our part -- direct or indirect -- in the ugliness, and make it a priority to learn the story of our FNMI sisters and brothers so that we can share the same with our children at home and in our classrooms and begin the long climb out of darkness and into a lighter future in which we acknowledge the mistakes of our past authentically and celebrate our truly equitable and respectful co-existence.
And it has to be authentic, not just a memorized and script off a printed page, poorly recited at the beginning of a meeting or over the P.A. system at school each morning so that we can say we've fulfilled our legal duty -- no, we have to go our of our way to learn something we didn't know before, and get excited to share about it with our colleagues and children.
This weekend, my partner and I visited Port Perry with one of our sons. We geocached on Scugog Island, home to a Reserve; one of the caches was placed on the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation, which the cache owner alleged to be a part of.
Simon wondered aloud about the relationship between these people and the Mississaugas of the New Credit, whose traditional land his school is built on. It led to an interesting conversation, just a drop in the bucket, but another seed was planted, none the less.
It is through a combination of these opportunistic teaching moments and through careful, planned, integrated instruction that we will begin to fulfill our responsibilities with respect to the teaching part of the reconciliation recommendations.
Not knowing is no longer an excuse. We are called to wonder, to question and -- if necessary -- to google!
Much has been written and discussed lately about Airbnb, the self-professed "rent out your spare room for a little extra cash" website and app.
Not all of the commentary has been flattering. Home wrecking incidents and competition for affordable housing are highlighted, and some local governments are imposing heavy (and in my opinion unfair) restrictions on hosting.
Personally, I think that – – done "right" – – Airbnb is a great way to build community and make the world a kinder, smaller, safer and more respectful place.
Here are some of my top reasons for hosting on Airbnb…
Meet Interesting People
Over the past several years, we've had the privilege of hosting a variety of noteworthy visitors, including an engineer working on the island runway extension at the airport I fly out of in Toronto, two retired biologists (ornithologists), a group of Polish astronomy students, and a PhD student working on the Hadron collider. We've also had our share of artists and musicians hoping to be inspired by new surroundings on PEI and and in Toronto, as well as travellers coming to North America for their first time and stopping in for a night or two at one of our places to rest up and get their bearings before setting out on a cross-Canada camping tour.
Whoever comes to visit, we almost always end up having some deep conversations over breakfast or before turning in at night, about the state of various world affairs.
Sharing ideas about ways to support and promote things like sustainability, feminism (and equity in general), responsible parenting and/or dog ownership and a wide range of other important topics invariably flow from these sorts of conversations.
Airbnb facilitates the sorts of "kindred spirit" relationships that no sports team or dating site could ever hope to foster!
Share Favourite Local Hangouts
Another reason I enjoy hosting on Airbnb is that I get to share some of my favourite places in Canada with others who have not yet discovered them.
Whether it's where to have dinner, or the best place to catch a beautiful sunrise or sunset, as a lifelong Torontonian and an avid wanna-be PEIslander, I am fairly knowledgable about both locales, which works out well for visitors trying to get a sense of what they should do with their limited local time.
I'm always eager to share my favorite, less-touristy hotspots with both our Toronto and PEI visitors, and get a real kick out of other people getting as excited about a place as I have been when they, too, discover it.
Support the Local Economy
People who use Airbnb tend to be people who would not necessarily use a more traditional hotel, either because they can't afford it, or because they prefer a more personal, authentic accommodation experience. And so I feel like hosting brings spenders into town who might otherwise not be here.
At the very least, they have to buy food/visit local restaurants while staying, and, often – – as in the case of the antique and curio-hunter staying in my kids' play house tonight – – they buy a lot more while traveling.
Since I provide essentials and a few little frills at all my listings, I am also pumping money into the local economy that might otherwise not have been spent.
Practice and Develop Life Skills
Running a side hustle like renting a spare room on Airbnb allows one to develop a number of important skills. First and foremost, I love hospitality and the art presentation, two skills I learned by necessity the summer before my mother died.
Painfully uncomfortable and often nauseous from either the cancer or the toxic chemo she was taking to buy herself a few more months to get her affairs in order, my mother spent much of her final summer on earth tucked into a sleeping bag on a fold-out lawnchair nestled into a corner of the garden she loved so much. I returned to Toronto the summer of '94 from a stint working at a hotel in southern Germany, where I had learned about presentation at a mid- to high-end restaurant on site. I quickly put these skills to use preparing small, tasty drinks and light meals, enticingly presented, for my mother, while as she/we played host to various friends and work colleagues of hers who had come to basically pay their last respects before she finally moved into palliative care at Toronto Grace that fall.
Hosting through Airbnb some 20 years later has helped me to revive these skills and honour the memory of my mother as I prepare artfully designed breakfast services for my various guests.
Even when we have visitors availing themselves of more basic, "self-serve" accommodations, I always prepare a nice breakfast basket and fresh flowers (when available) to make the first impression pleasing to the eye. These frequently get rave reviews, and I relish helping make people's stay a delight.
Developing one's ability to be a great host is a skill which I feel is easily transferrable to many other parts of one's personal and professional life.
Imagine if we all treated one another in our day-to-day lives as valued guests in our personal space… How much kinder a place could the world become?!
I also feel like being an Airbnb host it helps me refine my critical thinking and diplomacy skills: As a host I constantly need to assess the safety and feasibility of a situation. For example, should I accept this particular booking request or are these people just looking for a place to party?
I read reviews, research guest profiles, and – – if needed – – craft carefully-worded, diplomatic messages inviting new users to flesh out of their profiles and consider including a personal picture of themselves rather than their pet Chihuahua, in order to establish trust within the Airbnb community.
And as I am reading those user reviews, I consider how well I myself behave when I am a guest; am I respectful? Quiet? Tidy?
When Airbnb offers me options like "instant book" (which strike me as tailored to encouraged quick turnover and impersonal service) I develop the resistance to the temptation to make a quicker buck by rejecting that option, so that I can maintain the integrity of personal, clear communication between myself and my would-be guests before manually accepting any reservation request.
Become a Mentor Parent
This summer, my kids caught the Airbnb bug: Spurred on initially by the thought of making a few extra bucks for spending money, they pimped out their new Playhouse on Airbnb.
One of my twins in particular really got into the swing of things, writing a little welcome message in a guestbook on site, and preparing and rehearsing a "spiel" he gave to guests when they first arrived. He also had to negotiate with his brother about a fair pay arrangement, given the inequitable split in workload. Finally, there was the learning that there are different sorts of people in the world, and just because someone is not "like us", doesn't make them a "bad" person.
While the charm of being hosted by a 12-year-old monozygotic twins paid dividends with guests, my kids were learning valuable people skills and collaboration in return, both transferrable in the "real world".
We've had many conversations over the past few months about what it means to be a good host. As I have learned and continue to learn from my own experiences and from other, fellow hosts, hosting through Airbnb has helped me guide my young entrepreneurs in this learning.
Pay for the Extras
A lot of people think you can make buckets of money off Airbnb. And in some contexts you can. (Take, for instance, those who purchase multiple properties for the sole purpose of accommodating such short term rentals in cities were demand is high, or if you happen to have a spare room in a city like Boston, which has the highest hotel rates in America.) But if you are doing things as they were originally intended, that is, renting out "extra space" in your own home periodically, and you live in a more "normal" city, then the fiscal payout can be negligible.
By the time I buy the extra pillowcases and towels, refresh the flowers and/or buy the baskets to display the snack or breakfast items, pay taxes on my extra income (yes, I claim it like an idiot!), there is not that much left for "fun money". And there are some days when cleaning up after my guests and preparing perfection for the next ones seems considerably more of a time-consuming chore than the few dollars I make off the side hustle are worth.
On the other hand, if you do rent often, you can, over time, make enough money to save up for special projects or alleviate the burden of those little extras we all enjoy but most of us can't really afford. Some of the things I've paid for with Airbnb earnings outside our regular budget include dinner out with my girlfriend, shows and musicals, ice cream and other outings with my kids, car rental while traveling, and a playhouse for my kids (almost).
Now I'm saving up for a deck for my music cabin on PEI! :-)
It frustrates me when those who embrace and participate in creative disruptions like Airbnb are penalized. On PEI, for example, you have to be registered with the tourism board to run a bed-and-breakfast. The official reasoning behind us government cash grab is that they want to ensure an excellent user experience, since their economy still have a late depends on tourism.
But how do you meet the standards of such an operation with things like a play house without electricity or running water that is never the less in-demand? (The treehouse my boys and I stayed in earlier this summer – – also without running water, and no breakfast offer – – was doing a booming business at $30 a night!)
Besides, with almost exclusively five-star ratings, what is the tourism board really worried about? (on Airbnb, guests are strongly encouraged to rate their hosts anonymously in areas such as communication, cleanliness and overall value, so if someone is running a less than stellar operation, they won't be in business for long, even without the tourism board meddling in their affairs!)
It seems to me that there is room in the economy for both five star hotels and five star Airbnb listings. Someone who is bringing a sleeping bag and paying $22 a night to stay in a playhouse wasn't going to pay $125 at the official B&B up the road anyway, and those who are staying at the "official" hotels, are not being negatively affected by their Airbnb-surfing counterparts.
And in the meantime, ideas are exchanged along with smiles and often outstanding hospitality, making the world a smaller, kinder, safer, smarter and more creative place – – even for kids!
After writing for several teacher and multiple birth publications, including ETFO's Voice Magazine, Multiple Moments, and the Bulletwin, Vera now focuses most of her written attention to prolific blogging, including BiB, "Learn to Fly with Vera!" and, more recently, SMARTbansho and Homeschooling 4. 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.