Sunday, September 29, 2013


3 :58 p.m.  The afternoon workshop on differentiated instruction has ended.  I thank my audience for their attention and engagement, and add that I hope to see them again the next morning to talk about assessment.  I turn off the projector to let it cool, and begin to gather up the small library of tantalizing professional resources I’ve  laid out on a table.

My audience, however, nine French Immersion teachers from across the province, is in no hurry.  They do not disperse.  In fact, quite the opposite.  They huddle together like long-lost relatives,  exchange names and email addresses, and make plans for the evening.  Their banter and excited chatter counterpoints the routine packing up, and I pause for a bit to watch them trail out of the room for a night on the town.  In these young teachers,  the profession is in good hands.   

1.              They understand the importance of relationships.  They gravitate to each other, eager to build their professional network.  During the workshop, they have already shared strategies for building rapport with their students and a sense of community in their classroom.

2.              They have a sense of adventure.  Only two are Saskatchewan born.  Four have come from New Brunswick, two from Ontario, one from Quebec.  All have come to work in French, all have arrived on their own, and all are very happy to be here.   I sense that this propensity for risk-taking translates into openness to innovation in the classroom.

3.              They are knowledgeable.  Kudos to their professors and mentor teachers.  They have a solid grounding in assessment research, and they are applying it in their classrooms.

4.              They are are eager to learn, and consider various points of view.  Their questions target thorny, controversial,  issues.  Even more important, however, they listen to the diverse comments their questions generate.  No close-mindedness here, only a desire to honor research and to understand.

5.              They are enthusiastic.  I don’t sense any fatigue or discouragement, as I sometimes have in new teachers, even barely a month into the new school year.  They love what they are doing, and they are grateful to have an opportunity to make a difference for their students.

6.              They are authentic.   They arrive on time, and monitor the breaks.  They engage, and are attentive, careful to exemplify the behaviors they expect of students in their own classrooms. 

I leave buoyed from my afternoon with these young teachers.  For the profession in which I am so invested, the future sparkles.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


Often, on my daily walks, I head to the regional park.  Earbuds in place, I stride to an eclectic podcast playlist, from the spiritual and philosophic Tapestry, with Mary Hynes, to the practical White Coat, Black Art with Dr. Brian Goldman, the prophetic Ideas with Paul Kennedy, the quirky Freakonomics with Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, or the grounded Vinyl Café with Stuart McLean.  So consumed am I with the ideas as well as the connections I build around them that I often miss the simple beauty that surrounds me. 

To resensitize myself, I have left the earbuds at home during the last few walks.    Consumed with my own thoughts rather than those of others, I had byte space to notice :
Pirie Field
· Pirie Field, a national-class baseball field lauded during two Canadian National Junior Baseball Championships;
· manicured secondary ball diamonds;
· neat and precisely painted clay tennis courts;
· campsites nooked in a canopy of trees;
· a railway museum honoring the city’s roots;
· mown grass;
· modern showers serving swimming pool and campground;
· batting cages installed by Terry Puhl, the local boy turned fielder for the Houston Astros;
· the Trans Canada Trail looping through sections of the park;
· benches commemorating community-minded volunteers.

As I walk, I think of the people behind this park.  I think of the volunteers who shepherd our baseball team summer after summer, the individuals who call the games, sell tickets, run the lottery, or billet players.  I visualize the park staff who prepare the baseball fields for the summer tournaments, trim the grass, clean the showers, stock the wood bins.  I picture local celebrities who never forgot where they came from, and local people who celebrate the town’s rail heritage.   I recall the hours the Trans Canada Trail Committe devotes to making the trail attractive for runners and evening walkers.  So much generosity and genuine caring.

The regional park in my home town saved my father after he sold the farm.   Incapable of inactivity, he threw himself heart and soul into taking the park to the next level.  It was a two-for-one deal, as he snared my mother in the net of his enthusiasm, and the park work kept them both fit and active until their eighties.  They spearheaded people who built a beer garden in the park and extended its boundaries.  With more campsites and a gathering place, the park became attractive to organizations and families celebrating special occasions.  People came into town, the park made money, the park’s reputation spread, and my parents and others savored the satisfaction of their contributions.

Anything that looks neat, like our regional park,  masks hours and hours of devoted, consistent care by people who remain largely nameless.  Their daily work allows my daily enjoyment.  It’s not the celebrities that keep our world going—the artists, athletes, or politicians who appear on the news and in the tabloids.  Our world happens because ordinary people go to work every day, whether they are paid or not, and share their skills.  They are the cornerstones of our communities, and I am grateful for their dedication.

Mary Hynes and Stuart McLean notwithstanding, I need to remove the ear buds and pay attention.  

Friday, September 13, 2013


As I round the tree-lined curve of the regional park gravel road leading to the tennis courts, I see the three Labrador-retriever-German-shepherd-type dogs, off-leash, scampering about the road.  If I knew more about dogs, I could identify  the breed.  Alas, not so.  Big dogs—that’s all that matters.  Their human (owner?  dog-sitter? partial owner, partial dog-sitter?) saunters nearby.  This walk is likely to end badly.  I slow down,  and try not to cringe.  After all, I want the aura to be positive, no matter my natural mistrust of dogs.     

The owner notices me, maybe even senses my reticence.  He stops, and summons the dogs like I might encourage a dawdling child.  I stare in utter disbelief as the dogs respond at once, and hover near him, still not leashed.   They don’t growl, or bark, or whine.  He is still, and they, too, are quiet beside him.  I walk by, undisturbed.

“Your dogs are sure well-behaved,” I comment as I pass.

“I got lucky,” he says.

”I doubt that,” I call back.  Such discipline is not an accident.

I continue, impressed.  And grateful.  I have a love-hate relationship with dogs.  They bark at me while I walk, snip at my heels, get in my way, and growl as I pass.  I try to be respectful to a strange dog, as I would be toward a child who doesn’t know me.  I don’t want to impose myself on anyone.  You would think deference would be rewarded.   Not.   Dogs have never warmed to me, and I’ve been okay with that, despite the social stigma that seems to accompany a dislike of dogs. 

Sammie has changed that.  My son and daughter-in-law’s dog endeared himself to me from the get-go.  He seldom barks.  He doesn’t jump on me.  He doesn’t beg.  He just sits at my feet, head cocked at eleven o’clock, and stares at me.  Sometimes, he arrives with his ball in his mouth, and drops it at my feet if I don’t take the hint.  I love this dog.  I am me, and he is him, and we get along just fine.

The acid test came during Sammie’s first visit to our home on the occasion of my father’s 100th birthday celebration.  A household of strange people in unfamiliar surroundings did not intimidate him at all.  He wandered about the house, sniffing here and there, tail wagging, taking in the goings-on.  Every once in a while, he would meander into the kitchen, sit and look up expectantly, but never bark or beg.  Just wait.  When I responded with talk rather than substance, he would snuffle about the floor, licking up my mishaps and waiting for more.  Lucky for Sammie, I’m a notoriously messy cook.  A comfortable relationship between me and a dog began that day.

During our last visit a few weeks ago, I asked Sammie to accompany me on a walk.  As soon as I took out the leash, he bolted for the door.  For me, walking with a dog required forethought.  I experimented with the leash, anticipated how much tether I would allow Sammie, and stuffed a few plastic bags in my purse, just in case.  When I was satisfied that I had considered all the angles, I fastened the leash on Sammie’s collar, double-checked my supplies, and locked the door.  We were off.  As I expected, Sammie handled the novice on the other end of the leash with aplomb.  Ears at attention, nose often to the ground, he absorbed all the stimuli.  A kilometre later, I settled onto a bench by the river, and took out my book.  Sammie found some shade, and we lapped up the day in companiable silence.  Ever the paragon of equanimity, he basked in the attention of passers-by, and was content to observe passing canines rather than interact with them.  First excursion with a dog—check.

Responsible dog-owners like my son, his wife, and my park acquaintance create positive experiences with dogs for much-burned, twice-shy dog-shunners like me.   Thanks to the consistency and calm they provide for their charges, recalcitrant sceptics can change.  Next time I approach a dog, thanks in large part to Sammie, I may relax rather than cringe, keep a steady pace rather than slow down, communicate positive energy rather than fear.   Any similar reversals of notions I observe in myself as I age delight me.  They give me hope that long-held fears that have nagged me for decades can dissolve, making room for openness and new experiences.

Saturday, September 7, 2013


The thick, sinewy bite of elephant sticks in my throat.  I don’t recognize it, bathed in the juices of intense creative problem-solving.  Even the enthusiasm in which this particular elephant has been marinading hasn’t dissolved the cartilage.  My gag reflex cuts in, and I have to make a decision—spit or swallow.

The get’erdone dip that characterizes every project has arrived.  All I can think about is finishing and moving on.  I’ve arrived at the revision stage.  Pressure—a series of blunt comments, maybe, an inexorable deadline, or a curve ball—threatens to derail me.  I feel overwhelmed.  My heart pounds.  It is a precarious moment.  My decision here will not only colour my project; it will define me as a person. 

Option one is to spit the wad into a napkin.   I can opt for expediency.   Just delete the problem section and replace it with something simpler, faster.  Then, I compromise quality for speed, and the foundation of my high standards begins to crumble.   Like in Amazing Race Canada, I accept the penalty—two hours added to my time, not to mention the disappointment of surrender.

Or, I can swallow.  I can breathe, stay calm, accept the challenge, and work through potential solutions.  Tim Sr. from Amazing Race Canada does just that as he stares down a plate of muktuk in Iqualuit.   Resolute, he downs the ten pieces of whale blubber one at a time in minutes, and the team moves on.  No complaints.  No gags.  Just determination.  Get’erdone.

If I am to eat any more elephants, I must transform my get’erdone mindset from a negative to a positive.  After all, I know the moment is inevitable.  I know what to look for, and I can anticipate my reaction.    Thank you, Tim Sr., for the example of the efficacy of  a positive get’erdone mentality.  Carve through the unpleasantness.  Focus on the task.  Just do it. 

Monday, September 2, 2013


I couldn’t open the car door fast enough.  From the bag on the back seat, I extricated my red flats, and dropped them on the pavement.  As the elastic on first one red sling-back, then the other, slipped below my heels, and each foot nestled into the waiting shoe, my feet sighed their grateful release from an eight hour constriction.  I placed my materials box, computer bag and purse in the back seat, and collapsed behind the wheel.  I had eaten another elephant.

I’ve been eating elephants all my life, always one bite at a time.  Since I first read it decades ago, the adage has become an apt metaphor for the moments when, for whatever reason, I have had to meet deadlines within a specific, usually tight, sometimes well-nigh impossible, time frame.  I have managed by taking small bites, one after another.   Eating elephants is not something I was born to do.  I wonder if anyone is, really.  Certainly not me.  I cherish leisurely and varied days when I give myself permission to deviate from my agenda and flit from one fancy to the next.  If I have achieved any proficiency at eating elephants, it’s that I have had elephant-eating thrust upon me.  Sometimes, the elephants present one at a time, over a period of months, just enough to satiate without getting tired of the taste.  Often, though, I consume a steady elephant diet, so much that I wonder if any other kind of sustenance exists, and even looking at the plate leaves me nauseous.  I am almost there now.

Over the last few weeks, my elephant diet has been relentless, if varied.  Early on, I ate quite a bit of ground meat.  I poured over comments and questions from the editor and reviewers of my current project,  hoping to synthesize them into a coherent direction for revision.  At the same time, I ate my way through a rack of ribs, each rib a daunting challenge that could fill me up and dull the taste if I wasn’t careful.  I was planning sessions for teachers on student-led conferences and outcomes-based assessment, in both French and English.  Each of those ribs demanded creativity and deep thought, a taste experience to be savored rather than devoured.  To have any hope of success, I needed to recall and apply some elephant-eating know-how I have gleaned from experience over the years.

1    1.   Eat the elephant one bite at a time.  Live in the now.  The now can be one day at a time, for small elephants.  When the elephants get big, though, the now becomes a morning, an hour, or even a few minutes.

2    2.   Stay away from the forest.  Check out the broad spectrum of what you have to do, then concentrate on the trees, one at a time.

3    3.  Bribe yourself.  After a morsel of work, treat yourself to a diversion.  I like to read,  take a walk, ride my bike, talk to someone, or watch a video.

4    4.  Sleep.  You won’t digest the elephant as quickly if you’re tired.  Work from the point of view of abundance.  Trust that you will meet your deadline in the time you have.

5    5.  Vary the menu.  An elephant diet might be satisfying over the short term, but it’s not sustainable over the long haul, as a very wise friend once told me when he heard how many I had eaten in a year.

I smiled to myself in the driver’s seat, closed my eyes, and soaked in the heat of the day and the satisfaction that comes with a sense of accomplishment.  The other September elephants would travel in the back seat today.  No encroaching on  the wonder of the moment, no supplanting the dessert.  No dispelling, either, the discomfort.  Every meal has clean-up.  I needed to freeze the soreness in my feet, the ache in my calves,  and the fog in my brain, cautions against choosing too many elephants from the menu again too soon.