Monday, 15 July 2013

Two Kinds of People

This past Saturday afternoon I walked through the verdant garden of my friend, John. His thumbs are a deep forest green and it was pure delight to stroll past each happy chlorophyll life form. His wife, Candice pointed me to a lovely white rose and my randomly connecting brain forced me to ask which early British branch of the royal family was associated with the white rose. While we cast about for an answer and before their tech-savvy son, Will, could check it on his incredibly smart phone, we bent to smell a blossom and there was a lovely white globe bodied spider. She (I say “she” because I immediately thought of Charlotte) had a slight pink mark and 8 long white legs, which carried her to the underside of a petal in the time it took me to say, “I wish Anisha was here.” 

Last summer, I read a biography of Frank Oppenheimer, Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens, which contained his observation on the rich learning environment he designed.
 The Exploratorium  was conceived as a place to teach and learn, primarily because these are things we all like to do. It is the way we bring up our children, take our friends to the top of a hill to see the view, or call out, when we are walking through the woods ‘Hey, look, there’s a deer’.

Yesterday, I Tweeted something I enjoyed from Joe Hanson (sadly misspelling his last name L): his wonderful answer to the question Why is a rainbow? His own website has many engaging posts and I love the name It’s OK to be Smart. Joe wrote a piece recently about Einstein and his elevator observation, that I can hardly wait feel. The next time I step into an elevator I hope to explore it, rather than take the ride mindlessly. I hope I am that kind of person (and I hope the same for Anisha) – the kind who says “Whooooa, that’s cool!”

I finish with this sweet quote from a letter Einstein wrote to his son that came to me via Brain Pickings.
  “That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes.”

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Free-Range Brain

My brain lined up elements of my universe in an amazing way these last few weeks. My summer reading has taken me through a number of fascinating books and my brain started rolling around the phrase “free-range” to connect the diversity of topics. The bread crumb trail started when I hunted down and pecked at This Explains Everything by John Brockman, thanks to the bookshelf at Brain Pickings. Each short essay in this book is illuminating I am sure, although I did not read them all. That is the nature of hunting and pecking. But there is one I turned back to several times: Benjamin Bergen’s Metaphors are in the Mind. I wandered from it to a Berkley website where I learn, George Lakoff and others are studying language and there are courses to explore how the “human physical brain composed of neurons that function via chemistry, can give rise to human concepts and human language”. Complex, abstract this-is-how-your-brain-functions stuff explained by making connections to what is real and tangible –metaphorically. Which these folks are saying is how we “think”, really metaphorically.

And then, in that way life just takes over and if you have your eyes and ears open, the seemingly abstract becomes, via a great metaphor, the real and day to day. On July 9th, two “free-range” stories converged on my laptop. Early in the day I read one by Sarah Boesveld of the National Post that says “the unforeseen consequences of allowing hipster farmers to raise chickens in their urban backyards” is abandonment of the animals because “People don’t realize how much work they (chickens) actually are.” In my quest to support agriculture of all kinds, I have been saying this over and over. The more people experience what it takes to produce food, the more they will appreciate farmers. Sadly, many people launch down a path of relationship with another living thing (chickens, rabbits, dogs, cats, spouses and even children) without having contemplated what it will actually require of them to make that relationship healthy for both parties.

Not long after, I receive an email about the Boesveld story from my friend in agriculture, Dave Fiddler, who suggests a course in chicken-care followed by licencing J This sends my brain scratching to the outstanding learning resource developed by the Community Standards Branch of Edmonton called Make a Better City.

Not to be confused with the Make Something Edmonton movement which is getting wings in ways no one could have predicted. And in spite of the volumes of sarcastic, ironic or lame Tweets that evolved into the absurd side story MacheteSomethingYEG, actual, interesting projects are beginning to fly. In practise free-range fowl are not known for their ability to soar, so here the usefulness of this metaphor may break down.

Hunting and pecking, I take a slight meander because a shiny little Tweet has caught my eye. It is from Paula Simons and is about her column of July 9. I love the way Paula writes and she opens this particular article with the phrase “I am a free-range Edmontonian.” Because I get “free-range” as a metaphor, my brain screams “So am I!” and I fire off a Tweet. I want to know if anyone is working on a T-shirt. As I read on, I see she is encouraging fellow Edmontonians to throw aside nationalistic attitudes to our little corners of the city and discover some new part of Edmonton. She says, “So here’s my challenge to you. Let’s call it Yegquest — #yegquest on Twitter and Facebook.” And in a matter of a day it is trending. I smile to myself as I follow it. I have, to this point in my life, never been part of something “trending”; as a matter of principal I have avoided trendy things. But this makes me feel good.

And now the whole Yegquest thing is “Storify”-ed. Thousands of the free-range Edmonton flock are out there hunting and pecking away at their city.

Free-range brained and Edmontonian. Where to next?

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Time to Celebrate

June is one of those months full of celebration. Many teachers plan, facilitate and otherwise engineer celebrations of a wide variety and finish the school year exhausted and worn out. I know for myself when I was in the classroom, as the march through June continued, the juggle of progress reports with year-end activities usually left me a prime candidate for a cold the first week of July.

The job of site coordinator gave me a freedom from progress reports and the opportunity to spectate at a myriad of different year-end activities for the classes that had been part of my program. It was always a pure joy to sit back and watch the smiling faces and bear witness to the year of learning that had proceeded. As I let the diversity and creativity wash over me, I often found a little tear of joy in my eye.

This time of year, one type of celebration comes in the form of awards. The Edmonton Inquiring Minds’ site-based program at the Devonian Botanical Gardens called Green School was a winner at the recent Emerald Awards. Spotting the finger prints marking the outstanding programming by Emma Gilbertson, Deb Griener and Antonella Bell (Deb's accepting photo is third at the link) caused my heart to swell as I watched the video clip. I smiled when I saw the coil bound journals and students sketching, not-so-secret signals to those of us who fan the flames of week-long, inquiry based programming.

Friday, June 14 the awesome display at the Citizenship Fair demonstrated a host of connections facilitated by the City Hall School program. I have heard the Energizer Bunny label bestowed recently on others but my money is on Linda Hut, City Hall School coordinator, as the true holder of that title. One of my favorite aspects of the event was hugging a number of the outstanding teachers who use Inquiring Minds sites to create a year’s worth of learning for their students. The Fair was the proof of the difference between projects and project-based learning, which I just received a Tweet about yesterday from Danny Maas.

One of the Edmonton Inquiring Minds' “master teacher” crew is retiring, Christine Zihrul. That is another June rite of passage – retirement functions.  I was unable to attend Christine’s celebration but if it did not include some fascinating photography I would be surprised. The first week I worked with Christine at ICE School she amassed over 1000 photos of her students’ active learning at Rexall Place (maybe back then it was still Skyreach Centre J).

Earlier this year the long-time program facilitator of the School at the Legislature, Diana Panizzon, retired. And at month end, Lorna Zucchet (she would say to kids that it was pronounced Zoo-cat, in a very cool convergence of appropriate things), program coordinator for more than a decade of Zoo School, will close that chapter of her career. Through the years of pioneering work we did, I felt so nurtured in the collaboration we shared.

In one of those Google search moments I fall victim to and cost me many minutes of divergent viewing I did not plan on, I discovered the perfect close for this blog.

Celebrate What’s Right With the World has a great 20 minute film – if you have time it is worth every second.

I echo Dewitt Jones: “I choose to celebrate. Why? Because it imbues me with gratitude, it allows me to see the best in people and situations, because it fills me with energy.”

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Catch and Release in Inquiry

Here is the spoiler alert – this blog has a fishing story and a several fishing metaphors. Beware.
Soon after some of my first experiences teaching, I became aware of the fact that engaged students were way easier to “manage” (a nice term related to classroom control) than disinterested ones. This is not rocket science. Finding the right hook for lessons became one of my teaching goals.
I have a story to tell about hooks. It goes far back into my childhood. I lived at two different times in the idyllic foothills of southwest Alberta. Whenever I return to that landscape, I breathe differently and all the tension leaves my shoulders. This has been a fascinating personal observation since some of those years were filled with turmoil in my family. It has often caused me to reflect on the deep sources of resiliency found in a natural environment.  
Both of my Dad’s parents liked to fish. For my grandfather, George Shenton, I am confident it came from his childhood roots in the pastoral English countryside near Bollington, although he never told me that. I went with him to the cold, stony rushing little stream near our home at Twin Butte on several occasions. I suspect, I was allowed to go to get me out of the way of the afore mentioned turmoil, but at 9 or 10 I don’t remember caring about the why.

Throwing stones in a stream does not make fishermen happy.

Fishing time is not really talking time. While my grandpa could spin a tale, he never did it when he was fishing. 

If you catch it, you must clean it. Soon after my first fish gutting session, I discovered I could set-up my line with a weight and no hook and stand and cast and reel in and watch the birds and shadows and slowly walk the edge of the stream and claim bad luck for not catching a thing. I assumed (for a few years) that my Grandpa was none the wiser to my ploy. Then one year on a family visit back to Pincher Creek in my mid-teens my deception was revealed during a story telling session, much to my embarrassment.  He had known all along. Only recently, as a grandparent did I really get it – but that is a different tale.

Back to the nature of hooks. Musicians have understood the use of a good hook, something to catch a listener’s attention and bring them back time and again to the lyric or melody. I have never heard a composer apologize for using a good tonal hook. All those related ideas like bait and lures just remind me that shiny, colourful, invitingly textured, intriguingly sounding, delicious smelling and all things food related can be used to draw a student’s attention. It is best for a good hook to be multi-faceted since learners can be a diverse lot, very unlike the schools of the fish species.
The powerful part of a good hook in learning, from hockey to animals to good literature is what happens after landing that learner. Release before death by boredom, I hope. After drawing them in, using the focus and attention to go deeper and plant some seed (sorry to muddy the water by mixing the metaphor but could not resist an agriculture reference) it is throwing them back. How do I facilitate the successful, independent integration of that fact, skill, concept or idea? Often, it is just trusting that the flow of the stream will carry them on to the next bend wiser.
Just recently, I met a former student. She was 6 when I had her in Grade 1. She is a charming 30 something nurse in Vancouver, now. She told me things she remembers clearly from all those years ago. Some of them are only shadows for me. You can never tell what will actually stick. It is so gratifying to know that somethings do.

Catch and release.

Thursday, 23 May 2013


Our wonderful Edmonton mayor, Stephen Mandel, is a grandpa and retiring. I so get him.

Sure, most folks will think he has accomplished a great deal for our city, but I really think a significant thing he has done is make government appear to be a place where people who want to make our collective life together work for all of us, without sacrificing his mortal soul. He shared this with all his city councillors. Heck, my heart aches for the citizens of Toronto and Montreal. Mayor Mandel deserves the reward of quality grandpa-time – he earned it.

I believe we often get the government we deserve and that citizenship is first a responsibility. As a person who has voted in every election I was eligible for, I feel I can speak about the things that happen in government that I like and don’t like. Yes, I “held my nose” and voted PC provincially recently (a first time for everything). The experience that tipped the scale for me was hearing Alison Redford live and in person. Do I have some misgivings about that vote, oh yeah, but after collecting information about all the alternatives, I weighed my choices and exercised my franchise.

I am doing a small contract for the Community Standards Branch of the City of Edmonton in support of their comprehensive resource for Grade 6 called Make a Better City. If all the voters of Edmonton were exposed to these “lessons”, our city would be an even Better place to live. I am happy, and just a little proud, to help move the next generation of Edmontonians along the path of active democracy; an attitude of participation not “us against them”.

I will be using all the tools at my disposal to decide about my choice for councillor and mayor. This thing called the internet can make this easier. During the last year, I got to meet the Edmonton Journal photo-journalist, Ryan Jackson. He takes story-telling to a new level with his use of computers and images. Just for fun, go have coffee with the campaigning provincial partyleaders.

One lesson from the Plaka in Athens: democracy is best practiced in conversation.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Holy Temporal Anomaly – where does the time go?

I have been itching to write a post on this blog for the last couple of weeks and when I come to finally start, I discover I have not added a thing since Aug. 2012. When I read that last post, it seems like it was just yesterday.

Don’t get me started on where that time has gone.

What I am excited about these days is how much good stuff just keeps happening in the universe of Edmonton’s Inquiring Minds. Applications were up all around and 2013-14 looks like another great year.
In my little corner over at the Edmonton Journal, EJ School hosted 6 weeks of remarkable learning and lots of that learning was mine. In spite of (or maybe because of) the constant, unrelenting pace of change in the world of journalism, EJ School combined the opportunity to develop the tools of media literacy with exploration of the business of journalism in an engaging environment surrounded by history, current events and the downtown world of work. Together with the great teachers and the students who came with them, I got to explore downtown Edmonton and the Jasper Ave “retro-fit”, observe the sports department through the NHL lock-out, dig into the history of many downtown buildings, check out the view from the Castle Rock offices high up in Manulife Place, stand next to the Pulitzer Prize won years ago by the Edmonton Journal, view a thought provoking photo exhibit titled Inclusion & Exclusion at Enterprise Square, watch an epic curling match at the Brier, discover the spirit of service to others at the Marion Centre and celebrate the 100th birthday of the Edmonton Public Library.

I also got to know some of the journalists at the Edmonton Journal. Monday, every week the class on site was treated to a tour by Karen Unland, orchestrator of the innovative project called Capital Ideas. Then Karen would demonstrate good interview techniques on some staffer. Tuesday and Friday mornings during an activity that came to prove itself a classic for understanding the basic skills of observation and interview and metaphorically titled “Fly on the Wall”, small groups of students spend ½ hour in some working area of the building. Crime desk, the morning editors' meeting, advertising, marketing, front desk, security, publisher’s office, Block 1912, linotype machine, Capital Ideas and the occasional journalist’s desk became perfect practice locations for students. Then the process of the small groups sharing what they discovered helped everyone understand the nature of distilling and refining interesting information to communicate to others. Friday, after the editors' meeting Barb Wilkinson would drop by to explain the process of designing a front page for the print version and the class would get its writing assignment to create their own class front page.

Some afternoons were spent sketching in the Atrium or mining the wealth of riches inside Malcolm Mayes’ editorial cartoons.  At least once a week an opportunity was devoted to a more in depth interview with a staffer. Learning about the skills of storytelling in photography from Ryan Jackson, the insatiable curiosity that powers Paula Simons, the unusual route to crime reporting taken by Jana Pruden or the memorable sports events covered by Curtis Stock proved to be inspiration for page after page of student notes in their reporter style journals. For me, hearing Paula recount the story of Morris “Two Gun” Cohen reminded me that often truth can be more astounding than fiction.

I am already incredibly excited about a new group of teachers and the classes coming in 2013-14.

Holy Temporal Anomaly.