Monday, 8 March 2021

A Love Letter to the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation

 Monday, March 8, 2021

Dear EOCF Board Members,

On a day back in 2001, two decades ago, the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation was legally “born”. You should look it up - your birthday. Like births in general your conception began some time before as a spark that grew and matured into an entity few could have foreseen even on the day it became official.

Where were you two decades ago?

I was the happy teacher of a grade one classroom who took care of a small elementary school library, preparing to enjoy the golden years of my career. No glimmer of the transformational event taking place somewhere in Edmonton and its impact on me.

I caution you, as you read on, because the following reflection is full of superlatives. I am a lifelong sceptic and suspicious of superlatives. That characteristic does not keep me from passionately championing things I believe in. The creation of the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation changed my life; changed my understanding of the nature of educational possibility; made me a true proponent in the power of engagement and inquiry to teach and all without ever imagining it could.

What was imagined for the EOCF was that it would be possible to harness the amazing power of interest in this city in a hockey team for the good of the community.

I connected recently with some of the EOCF birth attendants to reminisce.

Patrick LaForge knew the power of hockey and a city’s relationship to a team from his previous work and brought that to his role to imagine a new relationship between the Oilers and the City of Edmonton. He tapped a lawyer, Doug Goss, to help complete the paperwork and be the first chair. Then he hired Gillian Andries, a woman with significant community engagement experience, to begin the process of making the vision and mission of a Foundation real. 

The following year, 2002, the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation entered my life. 

You came looking for a teacher. 

Gillian Andries brought with her a knowledge of an educational program concept: week-long, site-based, inquiry. Bring a class of students and their teacher to a learning rich environment every day for a week, support them all year in a quest to connect the curriculum with a “laboratory” and experts to see the science, math, history, civics, art and language of that place and their experience. Collect it all in the pages of a blank journal. 

This approach was already beginning to work learning-magic in Edmonton spaces like the Zoo, the Royal Alberta Museum, Fort Edmonton and the Alberta Legislature but not an NHL hockey rink. 

How could that work?

Gillian said the EOCF needed an experienced educator, “teacher eyes” to see the possibilities, make the connections, sell the interconnectedness of the real world and curriculum. 

When the Edmonton Public School Board agreed to be a partner in the venture by allowing the secondment of a teacher, I think even they were unsure it could be done. When they advertised the position the hockey-playing, kindergarten teacher across the hall from me said, “This sounds like you”.  I am confident few could anticipate the ripples of that chance spotting of a job posting miracle for me.

“They are not looking for me’” I said and my slightly contrary nature caused me to apply. A soon to be 50 year old woman. At the interview, the “assignment” was to create, in one hour, a set of curriculum related activities that might use the Coliseum. 

“Can I connect anything about hockey and the rest of Northlands as well?'' I asked. 

“Sure” was the reply. 

The genie was out of the bottle and I did not know I had rubbed it.

The rest as they say is history. 

I was hired to do my dream job. It had not existed before I began. 

Since then, I estimate Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation has “engaged” over 400 different classroom teachers and well over 10,000 students in a learning practice that delivers curriculum deep into brains. 

The diverse and varied skills of 3 seconded teachers, myself, then Diane Gurnham and now Cheryl McLeod have facilitated a much deeper understanding of hockey, team and the world of work necessary to make those concepts live in a way most adults do not possess. All this typically in minds not necessarily mad about hockey when they begin. 

Over the years, ICE School coordinators have worked collaboratively with other site facilitators to grow the number of learning rich environments that welcome classes this way by participating in Inquiring Minds Edmonton.

The Foundation has had 3 directors: Gillian, Darryl Lindenbach and Natalie Minkler. ICE School has been supported by all 3.

The ICE School classroom moved from under the seats of the third level of the Coliseum to a beautiful, custom designed classroom on the sunny south-west corner of Rogers Place. In the face of Covid, the program made a successful transition to supporting inquiry and learning virtually.

As happens with the passing of two decades, there are now in ranks of teachers in Edmonton, ICE School student alumni. 

While working since my retirement, to record the history of Inquiring Minds Edmonton, I interviewed a young teacher who was a Grade Six student in the second year of ICE School. To this point in her teaching journey she has applied for and brought classes to several different Inquiring Minds programs over her career: City Hall School, Zoo School and yes ICE School. She shares her personal ICE School journal with each new class and talks with reverence to them about the wonders they will experience and record in their own journals. 

And yes, I cried when she showed me that treasure, told me her path. I am crying, even as I write to share this with you.

When you celebrate, I hope you do it in many different ways. What the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation has accomplished in two decades of community engagement will be easy to add up in the dollars you have channeled to the many excellent and deserving organizations you support. Those dollars testify to how you are “using your powers for good” which is something I love to Tweet about you. 

I am so happy you were born. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart, for what you did for me and the transformation of learning opportunities for children here in our community. 

As a Foundation, continue to walk the talk of your vision and mission. 

You are the very definition of Community Engagement.  

“Do your little bit of good where you are; it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” Desmond Tutu

With great affection,

Sandy VanRiper

Monday, 15 February 2021


 Are you sick of the word pivot?

I admit, I am a jargon junkie. As a teacher, I found the words that confirmed my various biases (I took the UofA free online course Science Literacy during Covid times) and used them as descriptors of my favorite tools and techniques “thematic” “integrated” “hands-on” “inquiry” ”engagement” “authentic” ….the list goes on and on and I’ve used them to death. I know this because when I get wound up and launch into one of my passion pitches, I see my listener’s eyes glaze over. 

And now, “pivot” is everywhere. 

For all the years that have passed since my reading of Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman, I have coveted my own beautifully bound, multi-volumed OED (Oxford English Dictionary). While facilitating EJ School at the Edmonton Journal building I would visit the Journal’s set in the little library on the 3rd floor and lovingly thumb through a volume or two. Recently I discovered my Edmonton Public Library card gives me digital access to the delights of the online OED and that is now a virtual rabbit hole I fall down often.

Like many rich English words, pivot comes to us from French. It can be used as a noun or a verb and just right now, it gets mentioned lots in the world of business.

During the research for my next examination of Inquiring Minds Edmonton, I discovered two people writing about the nature, art and practice of the pivot. While operating the ICE School classroom from 2002-11, I would create a bulletin board filled with quotes that supported my year-long theme. The following 2 quotes will inform my interviews and ruminating going forward.

“In basketball, a pivot refers to a player keeping one foot firmly in place whilst moving the other in any direction to explore passing options. Much like a basketball player, successful pivots start by planting your feet, setting a strong foundation, then scanning the court for opportunities, staying rooted whilst exploring options.” Jenny Blake, 

Pivot  I love a good sports metaphor.

“Pivoting isn't plan B; it's part of the process.”  Jeff Goins,

The Art of Work  

Inquiring Minds Edmonton while based in their learning rich sites are all about the process.

Stay tuned. 

I will be pivoting. 

More to follow.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

Inquiring Minds - a poem

Inquire, Inspire, Immerse
Interact, Innovate, Investigate
Experience, Excite, Empower  
Curious, Connect, Collaborate
Active, Authentic, Awareness
Motivate, Meaningful, Mindful
Dreams, Deliver, Deep
Joyful, Powerful, Real
Hands-on, Self-directed, Flexible
Eye-opening, New, Stimulating

This was created from the collected words of site coordinators September 2019.

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Elevate Aviation Learning Centre – Edmonton International Airport

Spring is definitely in the air.  Let us imagine jets on this magic carpet and head out to the Edmonton International Airport. Edmonton has a rich aviation history that has always fascinated me. I am quite excited to visit here because this is a brand-new member of Inquiring Minds. Elevate Aviation is a non-profit organization founded in 2015 in Edmonton, Alberta. As we fly in, I want to be careful to avoid causing any air traffic controllers a problem. I will just peek down at the horses training on the Century Mile racetrack (I do love horses).

Airports all over the world look different right now. Edmonton International Airport takes the current COVID-19 (coronavirus) very seriously and has been working closely with Alberta Health Services (AHS) and Public Health Agency Canada (PHAC) to identify best practices and help inform passengers with the correct information. In this time of travel restrictions, physical distancing and health concerns, EIA continues to stay open for critical and essential travel.

Nova Andrews, Program Director for the Elevate Aviation Learning Centre, and I had a wonderful chat about the development of this program. The paths to Inquiring Minds are forked and winding. A ballet dancer who had a career in aviation, she found herself recently taking off into the open skies of Elevate. Like all of us in these unusual fluid days, she is learning about navigating interesting times. She is excited and hopeful about the weeks in the 2020-21 school year following the Inquiring Minds model. We agree on the idea of flight as inspirational, innovating and engaging, a perfect place to start an opportunity to learn, no matter what age the learner is.

The Inquiring Minds website has this to say about Aviation School:
Students see the world of aviation through a brand-new lens, meet inspiring people, and learn about careers through mentor presentations, conversations, hands-on activities, and tours. They will also have the opportunity to go behind the scenes with Edmonton International Airport, NAV CANADA, Edmonton Flying Club, Canadian North, North Cariboo Air, and the Royal Canadian Air Force. We invite you to join us on this week-long interactive and immersive experience as we focus on aviation careers, aviation safety, and design thinking for innovation.

Look at the Elevate Aviation Learning Centre webpage.

Do you want to know more? Contact Nova at   

You can start your application process at the Inquiring Minds website.

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Zoo School

From Rogers Place we head west above 104 Ave, pick up the Groat Ravine, check to see how many new green leaves are showing and then turn right and follow the North Saskatchewan River. After a couple of bends we will swoop under the pedestrian bridge that joins Hawrelak Park to Buena Vista Park then bank right to our destination, the Edmonton Valley Zoo.  The Zoo welcomed its first guests on July 1, 1959 and maintains a vision of being a special place that inspires love and learning of animals and nature. Certainly, when the god-mother of Inquiring Minds, Gillian Kydd, visited it back in 1999, she found a warm, welcoming environment and staff with a willingness to let children get behind the scenes. The Zoo had already had a class or two come every day for a week by that time and were well on their way to the program that is called Zoo School, today. During these Covid-19 times and like all City of Edmonton recreation facilities and attractions, the Zoo is closed to the public until further notice. However, true stewards, the staff at the Edmonton Valley Zoo continue to provide the highest quality of care to the more than 350 animals that live at the zoo.

Courtney van Roijen, Immersive Experiences Coordinator for the Zoo, tells me she was working at the Zoo part time while finishing her education degree when she heard about Zoo School/Zoo Immersion. Since she already had a BSc in Biology, the idea of being able to teach kids and animals really called to her. “I loved the idea of being able to work in a non-conventional classroom,” she adds. Courtney taught Zoo Immersion for 2 years before she took over the Zoo School coordinator role in 2014 and has been with Zoo School and Inquiring Minds ever since.

Courtney feels people overlook the inter-curricular objectives the program can provide and that many teachers think it is just for younger kids. “I've had a blast doing older grades and trying to think of ways to integrate other curricular ties. I had a junior high class that focused on careers. We talked to multiple people at the zoo and talked to a manager about job interview techniques,” she says. She continues with a smile, “I have gathered data to calculate the perimeter and area of an enclosure using non-standard measures, as in our feet.”

One surprising thing that Courtney loves sharing is the zoo’s compost space. She expands, “Whenever we get up there it's fun to be able to talk about things we can do to support the environment and when we take a quiet moment up there we can often see wild coyotes that live in the area which is an interesting juxtaposition to the fact that we have camels right around the corner.”

The Inquiring Minds website describes Zoo School this way:
Get closer to the animals at the Edmonton Valley Zoo! Imagine how memorable learning is when smelling, touching, hearing and seeing our residents up close and personal.   Zoo School offers a customized curricular week-long immersion into the inner workings of the zoo.  This program builds writing and observational skills through the use of a naturalist journal, beginning in September and carrying on throughout the year until June.

Do you want to know more? Contact Courtney at

You can start your application process at the Inquiring Minds website.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Edmonton Oilers ICE School

I’ve tromped all over downtown Edmonton with kids. For our magic carpet ride from the Legislature to Rogers Place I want to glide past Historic McKay Avenue School Archives & Museum again, then head north down the middle of 104 St., the 4th Street Promenade. By flying low, just 3 floors off the ground, we’ll clear the traffic lights but stay surrounded by the history. I love the feeling here. For sentimental reasons, my favorite building is the Birks Building. My wedding band was custom made in it and the diamonds checked, every so often, until Birks moved to Manulife Place. There is a sideways, hockey time-trip that connects Manulife Place to the Legislature. Manulife sits on the site of Edmonton’s first indoor hockey rink, the Thistle Rink, which was the meeting place of the opening session of the Alberta Legislature. I LOVE telling the story of the Thistle’s spectacular disappearance to anyone who will listen. Back on 104 St. we pass the wonderfully nostalgic and enchanting-to-look-at Neon Sign Museum. We’ve reached our destination, the south-west corner of Rogers Place, home of the Edmonton Oilers ICE School.

The program was the first initiative of the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation, dedicated to building strong, vibrant and safe communities by demonstrating philanthropic leadership with a focus on education, health and wellness and hockey programming for youth in Northern Alberta. And it goes without saying (but I will) that this program was my personal introduction to everything awesome about week-long, site-based, inquiry back in 2002.

With Rogers Place Covid-19 dark, I caught up to Cheryl McLeod, Coordinator, at home. Cheryl is an EPSB teacher seconded to facilitate ICE School. Her first encounter with Inquiring Minds was ICE School. Although she had taken classes to the Strathcona Science Centre and Bennett Centre for overnight educational experiences and understood the power, she had not heard of the Inquiring Minds programs. In the spring 2013, her principal at Riverdale School, Dave Bennell, an alumni of ICE School himself, suggested Cheryl apply. She had hockey playing sons and an extensive collection of hockey books in her classroom library. She took his advice and the rest as we say is history. Over the next few years, she attended City Hall School and U School. When it came time for Diane Gurnham, the program facilitator from 2011 to 2018, to retire Cheryl threw her hat in the ring.

Cheryl wants teachers to know that ICE School is not only focused on hockey. The whole building, the science, the history, the arts, career pathways, Cam Tait, marketing and horses (yes horses) all have connections. She invites students to be explorers during their week, see interesting things and make connections.

She has many favorite gems to share with students but one of the magical moments that never gets old occurs when a class steps into the ICE School classroom for the first time. That lovely classroom was part of the design of Rogers Place from the beginning because the program existed years before Rogers Place. This speaks on many levels to the place of the program in the Oilers' world, and that is a wonderful place indeed.

The Inquiring Minds website has this to say about Edmonton Oilers ICE School:
At ICE School teachers are given the opportunity to move their classroom into the world of Rogers Place and the new Edmonton Ice District. ICE School incorporates site facilities and the provincial curriculum to develop a week of hands on learning to fit the needs of each class.  At ICE School we believe learning occurs when experiences are concrete, real and meaningful, when connections are made between topics, concepts and skills and when time is provided for observation and reflections using journals.

Look at the ICE School webpage.

Do you want to know more? Contact Cheryl at

You can start your application process at the Inquiring Minds website.

Friday, 17 April 2020

School at the Legislature

When I am done this Inquiring Minds tour, it’s going to be hard to give up the magic carpet, but right now I wish we were walking this next path together. Regardless, we will fly out of Churchill Square south and pass a fine example of Edmonton’s architectural heritage, the Hotel MacDonald. At the Mac, let’s swoop gently to the west to follow the Heritage Trail that approximates the original path from the settlement of Edmonton to the Hudson’s Bay Company Fort where the Alberta Legislature Building sits. Along this trail are plaques about sites of historic importance and McKay Ave School, the meeting place for Alberta’s first Legislative Assembly. As we wend our way through the buildings just above the treetops lining the streets, we finally pass the Federal Building and turn to the right to carefully swoop down to the reflecting pools. Look south and take in the iconic Dome and then north to the windows of the Education Centre, home of the School at the Legislature.

Are you a teacher interested in Parliamentary Democracy? Consider the Alberta Teachers Institute on Parliamentary Democracy planned for this fall. I can’t help but wonder here, if an alumnus of School at the Legislature is already working in our provincial civil service or considering running as an MLA?

The health and safety of the Members, staff and visitors is a top priority for the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, so during these Covid-19 times, all tours and public events are suspended.

I had the opportunity to catch Kelsey Kendrick, Michael Ruiter and Grace McNeely working hard in their respective homes. Kelsey first observed Inquiring Minds in action at the Legislature in 2015. As a program assistant, she facilitated a hodgepodge events for programs and exhibits. Michael Ruiter, with a Master of Letters in Medieval Studies, was a tour guide (Heritage Interpreter) at the Legislature when he met Inquiring Minds through a class of Gr 4 I brought from EJ (Edmonton Journal) School. Grace McNeely, who recently became SATL Education Coordinator, started at the Legislature in fall 2016 as a Heritage Interpreter. Her first interaction with SATL was giving a small group interview for a French class! She began leading SATL weeks a year later, in 2017, and eventually became a Programs Assistant.

I asked each of them in turn about misconceptions teachers might have about spending a week at the Alberta Legislature. In their own ways they all came back to the idea that the educational opportunities of their space are so much more than social studies. They enjoy making connections to ideas teachers might only dream they could make there.

The diversity of their hidden gems surprised me. These gems speak to the wonder of how pleasing it can be to be engaged by different things. I have visited and toured the site numerous times over many years and appreciate the fact that I have not plumbed the depths of treasures there. For Kelsey the gem is a piece of beautiful and clever stained glass in Legislature Library. Michael takes great joy in sharing a larch planted to honour Alberta’s sister province in Japan, Hokkaido and builds on its needle dropping habits to illustrate the metaphor of something being two things at once. Inside the refurbished Federal Building is a pedway stairwell walled with Tyndall stone where Grace delights in revealing fossils from a time before even flowers existed, a surprising science, art and just plain fascinating set of connections.

The Inquiring Minds website has this to say about School at the Legislature:
Bring your students to our fully equipped classroom to experience government first-hand and to meet the people behind today’s headlines!  The School at the Legislature program is targeted towards meeting all aspects of the Grade 6 curriculum and aims to educate students about citizenship and democracy while providing a fun and exciting learning environment.

Look at the School at the Legislature webpage.

Do you want to know more? Contact them at

You can start your application process at the Inquiring Minds website.