Toronto event aims to help young girls navigate the ‘netherworld’ between being a child and becoming an adult

I am so grateful to be the Community Leader of G Day for Girls Toronto. I’m still processing all the goodness, but in case you haven’t heard me obsessing over this new movement that unites and empowers adolescent girls in the last few months, here is an article about the event that happened this past Sunday.

National Post

A new event is bringing together girls and their parents to smooth out the awkwardness of that big change, puberty.

It’s called G-Day and it’s the creation of United Girls of the World, a non-profit organization.

“Age 10 to 20 is a kind of netherworld between being a child and becoming a true adult,” says Madeleine Shaw, a director at United Girls of the World. “We really want girls feeling great about who they are right now, because at adolescence when their bodies start to change, society likes to give them a whole different set of messages about how they need to be different.”

The event focuses on tween-aged girls, ages 10 to 12, and provides them with a full day of activities meant to foster a sense of community and help them become confident in their sense of self.

Age 10 to 20 is a kind of netherworld between…

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My G Day Story

I originally wrote the post below for G Day for Girls, a rite of passage celebration that I am chairing on April 26 in Toronto. We are collecting G Day Stories from women of all ages – if you’d like to submit yours, we’d love to hear it!

And if you’re interested in being a part of this amazing movement, G Day Toronto registration is now open for girls aged 10-12 as well as Champions (parents, aunts, sisters, supporters). Buy tickets online & I’ll see you at #GDayTO!


 

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The summer I turned twelve, I asked my mom for three things that I had been made to feel were essential for summer camp: an Elita brand training bra, deodorant and a razor. I was flat chested, odorless, and the blonde fuzz on my legs was invisible. But I knew every other girl in my cabin would have these three talismans of maturity, and I was dead set on fitting in.

The odds were already stacked against me. I was a lanky redhead who slept with headgear to straighten out my teeth and a purple fiberglass back-brace to straighten out my spine. I was secure in my friendships at home, but camp was an alternate universe where the girls seemed more mature, more experienced, and somehow simply cooler. At camp I stopped being the funny, smart, quirky and creative kid I was at school. I became full of self doubt, all too aware of my precarious place on the outskirts of coolness. I was equally as afraid of being ignored as I was of being noticed.

My mom nixed all three requests. She told me that shaving would make my leg hair grow back thick and dark. She bought me a no-name training bra, because who needs brand name underwear? And after lecturing me about the connection between deodorant and Alzheimer’s, she sent me to camp with a natural deodorant crystal that spent the summer hidden in my duffel bag while I compulsively sniffed my underarms. I’d rather have Alzheimer’s than have my friends witness me rubbing a crystal on my pits. I was doomed.

That summer, my mom also packed me a box of pads…just in case. The pads came home as neglected as the deodorant crystal. This happened for two more summers. While the girls in my cabin grew hairier and bustier and started sneaking out at night to visit their boyfriends, I lay strapped into my purple fiberglass prison and wondered when I would ‘become a woman.’

Finally, in the fall of grade ten, I noticed a rusty brownish stain in my underwear. When I told my mom she slapped me across the face. She explained that when she informed her mother that she got her period, in the bleachers of Expo ‘67 in Montreal, my grandmother slapped her and replied, “Mazel tov, so do I.” And with this family tradition burning on my cheek, I finally entered my womanhood.

Whatever that meant.

I wasn’t sure how this made me any different than I had been the day before. I had already had a Bat Mitzvah to celebrate my womanhood in front of my community, but it was mostly just a big dance party. I was already taller than most adult women, and I had graduated to a real bra. I had no new status, no new privileges or responsibilities; just a new dull pain that spread from my belly around to my lower back and down my legs – was this what it was all about?

I remained disconnected from my cycle throughout my teenage years and all the way into my thirties. Only recently  have I started to connect with my feminine energy and my female body. I understand and embrace the creative power of this cycle that unites me with my sisters all around the world. I accept the way my mood echoes the moon. I have wonderfully close friendships with other women that are based not on dressing or acting alike, but on how vulnerable we are allowed to be in each other’s presence.  And I use a deodorant crystal.

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5 reasons to love outdoor education

I’ve spent the last two weeks facilitating two back to back outdoor education programs for an international school from Jakarta. Two weeks straight, 150 middle school kids, and an amazing team of 6 facilitators backed by our logistics superhero.  I was working for Odyssey Institute, a Bali-based company whose mission is, “Contributing to global sustainability through experiential education.”

I’m covered in mosquito bites, sore in places I didn’t even know existed, and so tired that I’m considering installing voice to text software so that I can complete this post in a starfish position. But it was worth it. Working in Outdoor Ed is exhausting, but it’s one of those rare jobs where every once in  a while you look at your co-workers and ask, “We’re getting paid to do this?”

Here are five reasons why:

1. Oh the Places You’ll Go: Like I said – teaching outdoor ed means getting paid to travel to new and exciting places. Over the last year, my job has sent me tubing down a river, camping in a volcanic caldera, balancing atop a high ropes course in the rainforest, and snorkelling a world-class reef.  I also get paid to revive my weary muscles in therapeutic hot springs and sleep in 4 star eco-resorts.

Working in these places is different from being a tourist because passivity is not an option. On this last program, I led an all-day rainforest hike. The facilitators completed the hike once before the kids arrived, but the next 3 times it was up to us to make a lesson out of it. More than just walking through the steamy jungle, we drew metaphors for human communities out of the layers of the rainforest and stopped to create ‘sound maps’ while the kids sat in silence in a riverside clearing. Creating focussed site-specific activities allowed me to connect actively with these new places.

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2. In-tents-ity leads to transformation: Sometimes in the classroom, days and weeks can blend into a monotonous drone. This is never the case in outdoor education. The intensity is high during these short, challenging programs.

When I was researching my MA thesis (source long forgotten), I remember reading something about how in many  ‘peak experience’ youth programs,  full-on schedules stretch teens into a  sort of liminal space (often intentionally through physical exhaustion) which opens them up to lasting emotional transformation.

On one program, there was barely a minute of real down time.  By the time we reached the evening program – a ‘true self’ mask making activity – the kids were exhausted, but they were also in a space where they were able to share deep self-reflections that would never come out in a classroom setting. Many of the kids (and in one case, the teacher chaperones) ended up tearily confessing their self-doubts and regrets – a level of emotional honesty that rarely surfaces in self-conscious adolescents.

Whether the intensity peaks during emotionally charged programs, from pushing physical boundaries, or from extending one’s comfort zone,  I believe that these are the educational moments that are truly transformative.

3. Teachable Moments: It’s dark and rainy, and eighteen grade six kids are walking through the forest in silence without flashlights. It’s a short night hike, and we’ve been stressing the value of integrity. The idea that integrity is about doing the right thing when nobody is watching. One of the girls trips and stumbles, scraping her knee.

In the debrief, we ask, “Who did not stay in integrity throughout the hike?” and a girl sheepishly admits that she turned on her flashlight and broke the silence to help her friend when she fell. This sets off a discussion about what integrity really is, and the difference between following rules and sticking to your values.

Another day, we reach the spot where we planned to have lunch and notice that a huge branch has fallen from one of the emergent trees next to us. One of the teacher chaperones happens to be the science teacher, and he leaps into a conversation about epiphytes, mutualism and parasitism, allowing the kids to examine firsthand the ecosystem thriving on this one branch.

The messiness and unpredictability of experiential outdoor education create endless teachable moments.

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4. Teamwork: Collaborative unit planning and PD days aside, classroom teaching provides few opportunities for teamwork. This can lead to teachers whose classrooms are fortresses of old habits and stale ideas.

Because of health and safety, outdoor educators rarely work alone. In the last two weeks I was paired with two different inspiring educators, and I had opportunities to work alongside the whole team for big group activities. In this team of six, our experiences were amazingly diverse – from a professional rock climber to a university lecturer. I learned so much from my co-facilitators and I will take these new strategies, games, and insights with me.

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5. Get outside and get into it! Outdoor ed is never dull and working in this field has made me more resilient and resourceful. Every day presents new challenges – the kid who is afraid of everything, the thunderstorm that cancels an activity at the last minute, teachers who treat the program like a personal vacation, leaky tents and broken sandals and leeches and sprained ankles…

The facilitator has to overcome all of these unexpected things while keeping everyone safe, managing the schedule and flow, and maintaining high morale. I let a millipede crawl on my face so the kids wouldn’t be afraid of bugs. I faced my own trepidation to smile and cheer as I completed the high ropes course. I invented a ‘Jungle Boogie’ vocal jam to lift everyone’s spirits in the middle of a tough hike. With every program I facilitate, I become stronger, more flexible, and more patient.

IMG_7807I definitely haven’t left the classroom behind for good. Being an outdoor educator has given me valuable skills and insights that I can apply to classroom teaching.

What do you love about outdoor education? If you don’t know…find an opportunity to take your students outside, get messy, and grow.

two roads

Here are a few words about the many roads I’ve been walking on for the last 15 years or so. It’s more than a justification of a resume that jumps contexts and continents. It’s my way of reflecting upon and consolidating a personal narrative that sometimes reads like a ‘choose your own adventure’ book. It’s a celebration of the current situation I’ve wandered into as a volunteer at Green School in Bali – a place where, as I say in the poem, “the divergent converges.” And it’s an affirmation of the value inherent in the many roads my generation is walking down.

So to all my fellow travellers: keep walking, keep wandering, keep weaving your way down these many roads, and find your own way to make all the difference.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood”

I gazed down one and then the other

Asked my father and my mother

Google mapped the road ahead

And waited for the answer to load

And while the rainbow pinwheel spun I asked myself:

Why not travel both?  Continue reading

From TED talk to nature walk – meeting Green School founder John Hardy

The number of exceptional human beings wandering around the Green School campus is through the roof. It seems as though everyone I’ve talked to in the two weeks that I’ve been here is successfully balancing three or four projects, enacting individual visions that, woven together, create the rich tapestry that is Green School. Chief visionary is Green School founder John Hardy.  If I haven’t already bugged you to watch Hardy’s TED talk, it’s worth taking a few minutes to check it out:

In the Green School, Hardy has created a forum for conscious innovators in a multitude of fields to bring their visions to life.  Last week, I was privileged to meet John and join a handful of community members for one of his Founder’s Walks, which he’ll be hosting every Thursday until mid-February. 

I hitched a ride on the back of a school security guard’s motorbike and sped through villages and rice paddies toward Bambu Indah. Maybe the driver wanted to shake things up a bit for bule. He took a few turns too quickly and I arrived trembling, half an hour early. Hardy’s property in the hills near Ubud is unassuming from the outside, but every inch of space inside the gate illustrates this Ontario College of Art & Design graduate’s eye for natural design and attention to detail.

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A door to one of the Green School classrooms – one of my favourite design elements

Continue reading

the flakiest thing I’ve ever written

A thick white cloud squatted low over the Toronto skyline on Monday night, but there was no moon to be seen. In honour of the starting point of October’s lunar cycle, my friend hosted a new moon gathering. I know what you’re thinking: Emily has come home from Australia and gone off the deep end. Yes, this post involves meditation, ‘Soul Card’ readings, and candles, but bear with me.

While I believe that natural energies impact human emotions and behaviour (witness Exhibit A: my own autumnal listlessness), I usually don’t put much faith in crystals, astrology, tarot and the like. Generally, I think that the lessons we draw from these media have more to do with  psychology and our power of creative interpretation than they do with magic, destiny, manifestation, or any inherent predictive capacities.

But the quickest way to my soul is through my stomach, so after second (OK, third) helpings of the delicious pot-luck dinner and a fun round of Dixit  (a game whose pedagogic value deserves a post of its own), I was game for a little lunacy. Up to this point we’d been laughing, drinking wine, sharing dating horror stories, and casually getting to know each other. At a certain point in the evening, we changed the lighting, set a new intention, and consciously shifted the energy to begin our new moon ritual…whatever that is.

Five of us settled in a circle around some candles and our host guided us into a few minutes of meditation. I admit I’ve never been very good at meditation. During my Masters, I took a course with holistic education expert Dr. Jack Miller.  For part of our credit we had to meditate daily and keep a journal. I sincerely tried, but mostly the meditation project taught me that I was able to fall asleep pretty much anywhere and in any position. I’m proud to say that nowadays I can stay awake, and have been trying to work meditation into my routine with moderate success. Last night, with my focus hovering around the flame, something subconscious came up and tears started to flow (just like in the gorgeous Sigur Ros video below).

Bringing our focus back to the circle, we discussed our intentions for this lunar cycle – whether it was a commitment to being more grateful, less egotistical, or more present. We  spoke honestly and listened supportively. We identified and discussed the connections between all of our intentions and the challenges we might face in actualizing them.

Next, we drew three  ‘Soul Cards’ and interpreted what they had to say about our group’s question: how will the connections we made tonight be manifest in our lives over the next month? It was an interesting exercise, and we came up with all kinds of meaningful answers and lessons inspired by the cards’ evocative images.

One of the Soul Cards...what does it mean to you?

One of the Soul Cards…what does it mean to you?

Finally, we returned to a silent meditation and a few little rites, including collectively blowing out the candles to end the event. I noticed the time and was anxious to get my car off the street before midnight, and as I stood up felt a shifting energy in the transition out of the ritual space.

I gave a couple of my new friends a ride home and we debriefed the evening. For me, what was so striking about it was not the content or the method but the act of coming together to declare this time and place sacred. The rituals were fake – we fumbled through them making it up as we went along, but the depth of emotion they evoked was real. Considering it was my first time meeting three of the four others, the sense of connectedness that this ritual facilitated was remarkable.

After all these years, I finally get what Professor Miller was trying to do in his class. Meditate on this idea: ritual is an important part of life and education. 

All teachers have their daily classroom rituals – writing the agenda on the board, ending class with an exit card, using certain phrases to get the class to quiet down. But I’m talking about something different here – “ritual” in the way I’m thinking about it today is not interchangeable with “routine.” We all have tons of mindless routines that shape our days. The key difference between routine and ritual is mindfulness and intention.

I’m thinking of ritual more in terms of an intentional space bracketed by ceremony  that invites students to take some time out of mind. I’m imagining cynical, self-conscious high school students giggling and rolling their eyes initially, but maybe just for a minute, on some subconscious level, making meaning through their participation in the ritual. Like I said, I’m no expert in this area, but I am thinking about a few key elements:

  • a concrete shift from the normal classroom setup (sitting on the floor, changing the lighting, moving desks, putting on music)
  • a clear beginning and ending rite – be it silent meditation, an affirmation or recitation, a pattern of movement
  • moments for coming together as a group combined with moments for retreating into our private selves
  • something visual or tangible as an object of focus, a source of inspiration, or a talking point

After focusing for so long on the critical and analytical elements of learning, I’m making space in my pedagogic philosophy to value ceremonial acts, nonrational thought, and intuitive knowledge.

I hesitate to publish this post because I’m usually more grounded in theory or practice; I usually don’t just throw rough ideas out there before really thinking about them or trying them out. But one of my insights during the new moon ritual was that my perfectionism has been limiting my creativity. I’ll have a creative idea and then spend hours googling to see whether someone more talented, more established, or more authoritative has already done it.  I google the creative impulse away.

I’m sure lots of scholarly words have been written on this topic but this time, rather than over-thinking it, I just want to put it out there. Y’know…into the universe.

Moon over Milkwood, Australia (Feb. 2012)

 

a lesson for city living

Back home in Toronto after my Australian odyssey, I’ve been spending hours unpacking and sorting through the ephemera that I’ve collected here and there. After a day spent meandering lazily around my hood (coffee at ideal in Kensington, picnic in Trinity Bellwoods, more coffee and wandering through the Annex) I came home and sat down to continue shelving and drawering and filtering through my junk from Oz.

I came across this watercolour sketch that I remember painting one sunny afternoon on the top floor of the Berkelouw bookstore & cafe in Newtown. A jazz trio kept it mellow and a coffee kept me alert, and I read this quote and felt inspired.

“When we awaken to the artificial separation that would have us see the environment as out there, rather than a part of us…then it is so much easier to know that when we poison the water, air or soil, we poison ourselves”
– Katrina Shields

I think it’s an important lesson for my present situation. Unadulterated and immersive experiences in nature in its pure form are less accessible to me here than they were in Australia, and it’ll take a bit more effort to erase the artificial separation. I’ll try to keep in mind that the environment is not “out there,” it’s us, we’re it, and it’s time to inhabit that idea…even amidst the radiant white hot concrete mess of a Toronto summer.