Monthly Archives: April 2010

like a glass of lemonade

I feel like I’ve been in a learning desert for a while. If you’ve spoken to me in the last few months or read any of my posts about teacher’s college, you know that I have been struggling to stay positive about my future in education. Don’t get me wrong, I want to be a teacher more than ever before, and I think I’ll be damn good at it if given the opportunity (Ahem, potential employers: PRETTY PLEASE GIVE ME THE OPPORTUNITY!). Most of my inspiration lately has come not from my courses (which ended last week!) but from the amazing exchanges and ideas I’ve been witnessing through my growing online networks.

I try to find the time and energy to get involved in some of the educational moments taking place around Toronto. Today was one of those instances, and it was truly refreshing. The Canadian Centre for Diversity’s Young Leader’s Forum was like a glass of lemonade for my soul. I’ve volunteered as a facilitator for the YLF for a couple of years now, and I always leave feeling energized, optimistic and inspired by the young people that I meet.


A quick overview of the YLF: Schools from the GTA and beyond send 6-8 delegates to a conference centre in downtown Toronto for a day of learning and dialogue. Students come together with the common purpose of working together to combat stigma and discrimination. This year’s theme was “That’s so…HATE.” The day begins with a panel of young people who have experienced discrimination, sharing their stories and openly fielding questions from the audience and from the moderator. I missed the morning session this year, but in previous years, I have always been moved by how honest the Q&A is and by how much both panelists and audience members are willing to share with a roomful of strangers. After lunch there is an interactive improv performance from Toronto Playback Theatre, and then the group breaks up into small workshops. I was responsible for facilitating one of these workshops with 12 students, each one from a different school. My group included public and private schools, faith-based and secular, urban and rural. Students ranged from grades 9-12, and came from different ethnic, socio-economic, cultural and religious backgrounds.

My co-facilitator this year was a superstar – Ziadh Rabbani – a recent university grad, artist, and food security enthusiast. During one of our activities, Ziadh told the group that in Arabic, his name means abundance. The group agreed that his personality reflects his name’s meaning – he brought his overflowing  energy and enthusiasm to the table, and I would be happy to work with him again in the future.

The CCD provides each workshop group with a number of engagement strategies to choose from that provoke reflection, dialogue, debate, and open questioning. After going over (and putting our signatures on) the norms and creating a safe and positive space, we asked students to partner up based on any commonality and get to know each other. The partnerships they formed were based on a number of different commonalities – one pair looked at each other and said, “I’m brown. You’re brown. Let’s talk,” and another chatted about music, while yet another discovered they were both into science.  They then conducted a 3-question interview, sharing their names, something they are proud of, and something quirky about themselves.

We used the “Extended Nametag” activity, which led to discussions about labeling, bullying, exclusion, and the challenges of creating a diverse and equitable society. To wrap up, students were given a poem template (with prompts like “I am…I feel…I worry…I wonder…”). This provided the most moving moment of my afternoon, wherein a girl broke down in tears before reading her poem, sharing with the group that she had overcome an eating disorder and was worried that her struggles might not be behind her for good. Her poem was spare and heartfelt, and she read it while choking back tears. The group’s reaction was amazing – there were hugs, tissues offered, hands held – all this from a group that just met two hours earlier.

The YLF reminds me of what is possible in education. As a teacher, I’ll do my best to push the curriculum (and the desks) aside once in a while and make space for those important moments where students can talk about what really matters to them. Young people are so optimistic about their ability to change the world, and when you hear them speak, it’s hard not to agree with them. I feel refreshed and ready to being my internship on a positive note. Thanks for the spiritual lemonade, kids!


chimps & change & roots & shoots

This weekend I was in the presence of a living legend – Dr. Jane Goodall. My aunt sits on the board of the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), so the family had the privilege not only of sitting in the second row at her Convocation Hall lecture on Friday night, but also of spending an afternoon with her at an intimate event at my grandparents’ home. I even had an opportunity to ask her a question – I asked about her choice of words – she always speaks of animals using the words “personality, mind and feelings.” I wondered about her conscious use of these three terms, and she answered that they are her way of pointing out the arrogance of humanity, her way of fighting against what the scientific establishment told her was wrong (use numbers not names for the chimpanzees, don’t attribute “human” emotions to these beasts, etc.).

What amazed me the most about Dr. Jane is how present she is, how she looks every person in the eye and answers their questions – particularly the questions asked by children in the audience – with sincerity and patience. Despite traveling 300 days a year, she never seems distracted or too busy to share a moment. This presence is something I will try to emulate in my interactions with my students.

Another thing I want to do as a teacher is start a Roots & Shoots chapter wherever I end up working next year. Here’s a cute video from explaining what Roots & Shoots does around the world, made by students who are part of a Roots & Shoots group in Delaware.

Last week the Huffington Post had a good interview with Dr. Jane.

I grabbed an autographed copy of her book, Harvest for Hope. Looking forward to reading what the good doctor has to say about food.

british kids are cooler

Today in my Arts in Urban Schools course we talked about Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR). Not entirely sure what kind of action this research was all about, but it certainly has the 3 other letters covered. The action research, “Bridging the GAP,” went down at a school in Corringham, Essex and at their local mall.  I’m not sure if it was a marketing class or an art class, but the takeaways were about style and personal expression. The video is produced by Suklaa, a London-based creative agency that focuses on education & media. They write:

“‘Bridging the Gap’ focused on young people’s relationships with what they wear both in and out of school. 50 students at Gable Hall School took part in this social experiment project- where they first discussed their personal style outside of school and to what extent their clothes expressed their personalities. All the participating students were given a ‘weekend uniform’ consisting of straight blue jeans and plain white T-shirts- on a Saturday they all wore them and were asked to remove any makeup/ jewelry etc we went to Lakeside Shopping Centre (a place they’d normally hang out during weekends) – they recorded info relating to how they felt, how other people reacted to them- as well as taking images and notes of relating to the fashion around them.”

The students then collaborated with designers to rework the “uniform” into something that would appeal more to their demographic – i.e. themselves. Students voted on the best outfits at a culminating catwalk show.

Fun project, but where’s the action in this action research? This took place at a school where students wear a uniform – maybe a school uniform redesign challenge would have been more useful, or something that looked critically at how the shoppers at the mall reacted to the students before and after their personalization of the “weekend uniform” and what that says about people’s perceptions of teenagers.


I’m teaching myself how to tweet. Follow me!

I found a wiki called twitter4teachers that helps teachers find colleagues who teach the same subjects. Also, Tom Barrett and his online collaborators have put together a slideshow called Twenty-Nine Interesting Ways to Use Twitter in the Classroom.

For some reason I can’t embed it. Sigh…I still have so much to learn.

missing lyric found!

On the last day of my practicum, I gave my grade 10 History students copies of the song I wrote as a mnemonic device when I was in high school. I wrote a post about this song  last week and I know you’re all waiting to hear what the missing lyric is.

I am truly proud of this class – I started out dreading teaching them – all 33 of them. My Associate Teacher warned me about them before I even met the kids.  She pretty much told me her goal is just to get through every period. (To her credit, she had a very good relationship with individual students, but I think she felt they were out of control and so she resorted to compromises like giving them 7 minute breaks to socialize during class if they would agree to pay attention once the breaks ended).  Many of the things she told me about the students were true, but after the first few classes, I found myself really looking forward to this period. By the end of the month I felt that the kids knew I was on their side.

I gave the students the song as my parting gift – I told them it might help them study for their exam. I had thought I might get off easy, but of course they insisted that I sing it. I told them, “OK, we’ll sing it together. Who knows the song ‘We didn’t Start the Fire’?” Blank stares. No Uptown Girls or Piano Men in this classroom. I was on my own. I squeaked out a passable rendition of the song, my face turning as red as my hair. Lecturing in front of a class is one thing; singing is quite another!

They loved it. I went over each line and quizzed them – and to my amazement, they recognized some of the events and were able to elaborate on some of the causes of WWII. One of them even remembered that “Mein Kampf” meant ‘my struggle.’ As for the missing lyric, after a few suggestions were thrown out (“Lots of blood and gore” “The Holocaust left a sore” etc.) the class decided on…

World War II is hard core!

lesson plan: immigration role play

For the last month, I’ve been teaching two sections of Grade 9 Geography. I haven’t studied Geography since grade 9, and all I remember from that course was that my teacher’s favourite fish is arctic char from Lake Winnipeg. Needless to say, I was relieved to discover that I’d be teaching what I call the History side of Geography. I taught units on immigration, settlement patterns, and urban land use – much more up my alley than fauna of the Boreal forest and precipitation graphs for Charlottetown and Medicine Hat.

I’ve been co-planning these units with another student teacher from OISE, a thoughtful and dedicated educator whose thoroughness more than makes up for my seat of the pants approach to lesson planning. I think that we I put together a good unit on immigration – including the history of Canadian immigration, an evaluation of trends and patterns, a little bit of graphing and article interpretation thrown in for skill building, sharing personal histories in class and in written reflections, and a culminating role-play activity as well as a unit test.

I’ve decided to share the role-play here. Judging by my assessment of the students’ written reflections as well as their test scores, this activity was a success as it helped students understand and apply many of the terms and concepts associated with this unit.

Students were divided into groups of six. In each group, there were two immigration officers and four fictional characters who were applying to immigrate to Canada. Students were given:

  • character profiles
  • a handout detailing what makes a legitimate refugee claim
  • three copies of the point system (for each applicant except for the refugee)
  • a job description for a Canadian immigration officer
  • a task sheet with a rubric for the reflection

Students had approximately 40 minutes for the role play, and by the end of the time allotted, students playing the role of immigration officer had to use their critical thinking skills to evaluate the claims and decide which two of the four applicants should be allowed to immigrate.

The second part of the activity was a reflection, written in the last 20 minutes of class. Reflections had to include:

A) Reference to the terms we learned in class:

  • push & pull factors
  • tossed salad, multiculturalism
  • categories and types of immigrants (independent, skilled worker, investor, refugee, family, etc.)

B) If you played the role of  an immigrant

  • An explanation of the role that you were given
  • What were some of the problems that you faced?
  • Were you accepted? Why/Why not?
  • What do you think of the system? Was the decision fair?
  • How did it make you feel? Can you empathize with this person’s situation?
  • Would you have made the same decision if you were an immigration officer?

If you played the role of an immigration officer

  • An explanation of the role that you were given
  • How did playing this role make you feel? Can you empathize with this person’s situation?
  • What were some of the problems that you faced?
  • Did you find your job difficult? Why/Why not?
  • Was the points system clear? Was it fair?
  • How do you think the immigrants who you denied felt?

I gave each of the four immigrants a nuanced profile, hoping that the decisions of the immigration officers wouldn’t be too cut and dry. Indeed, there was a good degree of debate and discussion within each group, and different groups arrived at different – and equally defensible – conclusions. I would definitely use this activity again – it ran smoothly, engaged different kinds of learners in an authentic task, and provided opportunities for formative (watching the role plays) as well as summative (marking the reflections) assessment.

The immigrant profiles are below:

Rashmi Choudhary

Born in Delhi, India, you completed a four-year Bachelor of Science to earn your Nursing degree at the Raj Kumari Amrit Kaur College of Nursing in New Delhi. Having worked as a nurse for just over two years after graduating, you enjoy the nursing profession but are not happy at the hospital where you are currently employed. You are single and full of energy, and at age 24, you see a bright future ahead – you are looking for some adventure and want to advance your career in a new country. Your Auntie Aishwarya (your mother’s sister) and her husband immigrated to Canada in the 1970’s and your cousins – born in Canada – are around your age. You have met them at several family occasions and are excited to spend more time with them – one is a doctor in Hamilton and you hope he may be able to help you find a job. Your English is perfect but you do not speak any French.

Silvio Costa

Born in Recife, Brazil, you have been supporting your family working for 21 years at your cousin’s welding shop. You left high school at age 16, and began apprenticing as a welder and earning some money for your work. Lately, business has been slow and you are concerned about your two young sons’ futures. Your former neighbour Paulo, who used to work with you, moved to Calgary twelve years ago and now has a successful welding business. Paulo has promised you a full-time job when you arrive in Canada. Your wife and sons will move with you. Your wife is a hair stylist with a high school education. You understand English well – thanks to your love of American rock music – but your grammar and spelling aren’t great, and you get nervous when speaking English. You are taking a night school class to learn English. You speak no French. You have been trying to apply for immigration to Canada for six years. While you do have friends living in Canada, you would be the first of your family to immigrate.

Jane Smith

You are a 52 year old American citizen interested in starting a genetic screening clinic in Alberta, Canada. You have opened seven clinics all over the States that have succeeded. You have advanced technology that you use for the screening process for genetic diseases however, there are already two clinics in Ontario that are using the same technology. Your net worth is $7.5 million and you are willing to invest $1.7 million in developing the Canadian clinic. You will employ 4 Canadian scientists. You are a single mother and you have three dependent children under the age of 18. This is your first time applying to Canada for citizenship but you already own a ski chalet in Banff and have been vacationing there for the last 10 years.

Abdulhelil Tunyaz

You are a 31 year old Uighur – a member of a Muslim ethnic, religious and linguistic minority – who lives in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region  (XUAR) in China, formerly known as East Turkmenistan. Your community has been persecuted by the Chinese government since the late 1990’s. Your brother and uncle were arrested and imprisoned in 2001, seemingly for no reason – the Chinese government claims that they were radical Uighur separatist terrorists. You have not seen them since. You suspect that they have been tortured, and are afraid for your own safety. You are an engineer, and in November you flew to Canada for a conference. You are afraid that if you return to China, the authorities will detain you against your will.

The Guatemala Project: student-driven social action

Social action is often discussed in high schools but rarely do schools undertake meaningful, sustainable, student-driven social action projects. The school where I did my student-teaching last November runs several exemplary social action projects, including The Guatemala Project. I sat in on several of their lunchtime meetings and was impressed with the students’ dedication – this project goes beyond selling beans.

The students work with the Campesino Committee of the Highlands (CCDA), an organization whose mission is to promote the development of campesino communities in Guatemala. The organization promotes land reform, campaigns for human rights, and creates economic and educational opportunities for Guatemalan agricultural workers and their families. Canadian students involved with the Guatemala Project learn about the history of the Central American country and about the injustices that many Mayan campesinos face today. The students raise money for the CCDA by selling fair-trade, organic Cafe Justicia beans, and raise awareness by featuring speakers from the CCDA at school events. The Guatemala Project has sent groups of Canadian students to Guatemala to volunteer on service projects. The group also lobbies the Canadian and Guatemalan governments on behalf of activists being persecuted for their work.

…which brings me to the purpose of this post.  A former student of mine sent out an e-mail recently, urging Canadians to take action on behalf one of the CCDA’s leading activists. Please read the text of the e-mail below and, if you have a moment, copy the text of the letter into an e-mail and send it on to the addresses below.

For more on Cafe Justicia and the CCDA, check out this Rabble podcast: Cafe Justicia | or this video

URGENT: Social Injustice in Guatemala.
Take action now with our email campaign.

The UFA Guatemala Project has a long-standing partnership with an organization in Guatemala called the Campesino Committee of the Highlands (CCDA). The National Coordinator of the Campesino Committee of the Highlands (CCDA), Leocadio Juracán, and his family have been forced to go into hiding following a series of threats against them in the past week.

Since May 1, 2008, the CCDA has denounced several acts of violence against the organization, and has yet to hear a response from the appropriate authorities.  On May 1, 2008, national coordinator of the CCDA, Leocadio Juracán Salomé, and other associates were threatened when the car they were driving in was shot at six times, following the signing of the Rural Development Framework Agreement with Alvaro Colom, the President of Guatemala.  In February, 2009, after a press conference where the CCDA criticized the Guatemalan State’s refusal to proceed with the draft of the Integrated Rural Development Law, the Coordinator received a death threat by phone. Most recently, following a series of actions at the national and international level to pressure the Guatemalan Congress regarding the Integrated Rural Development Law, in November, 2009 27 bags of green coffee were stolen from the CCDA (Café Justicia) processing centre in Cerro de Oro, Santiago Atitlan. These acts have all been reported to the National Civil Police, but to date, no investigation has been carried out.

Recent Attacks

On February 2, 2010, the Campesino Committee of the Highlands, (CCDA), as a member of the Labour, Indigenous and Peasant Movement of Guatemala (MSICG) presented the report: “Guatemala: The Price of Labour Freedom,” and denounced the numerous attacks and violence directed toward the labour, indigenous, and campesino sectors.  One week later, on the morning of Wednesday, February 10, CCDA staff became aware that 182 100-pound bags of coffee (worth approx. CAD$35,000) had been stolen from their processing centre during the previous night. The processing centre is where small coffee producers, and associates of the organization, sell their fair-trade coffee to the CCDA. The National Civil Police were immediately called.  Nonetheless, the Criminal Investigation Division did not arrive on the scene until five days later.  At the scene of the crime, a circle with cement blocks had been made.  In the middle of the circle half-full bottles of liquor and beer were left along with cigarettes that had been lit but not smoked.

In the days that followed the robbery, the CCDA, with the support of MSICG, publicly denounced the incidents both nationally and internationally. On Saturday, February 13, the CCDA received letters that threatened the National Coordinator of the CCDA, Leocadio Juracán, at both the coffee processing centre where the robbery had occurred, and at their office in the community of Quixaya. The same letter was received at both locations. Given the severity of the threats, and to ensure the physical safety of the Juracán family, Leocadio, his wife and children fled their home and took refuge near Guatemala City. On Sunday, February 14, another letter, written in a similar style, was left under the door of the house in Guatemala City where Leocadio’s daughter was living. The letter threatened both Leocadio and his daughter.  The letters and the coffee robbery are seen as attempts to destabilize the organization, weaken its base and debilitate the labour, indigenous and campesino movement. These acts are seen as a strategy to weaken the CCDA, through the destruction of its economic sustainability, Café Justicia, which is the source of income to strengthen its work in rural communities.





To Whom It May Concern,

I write this letter with great concern regarding the most recent attacks against the Comité Campesino del Altiplano (CCDA), in particular the robbery of over 18,000 pounds of green coffee (café pergamino) and letters that have threatened the physical integrity of Leocadio Juracán, the National Coordinator of the CCDA and his family.  Since 2008, the CCDA has denounced attacks against its members and to date, no investigation has been carried out by the Public Prosecutors Office (Ministerio Público). Given the severity of the recent events, I strongly urge the Ministerio Público to fully investigate these crimes in order to arrest and prosecute the material and intellectual authors of these events.

I also strongly urge the appropriate State Authorities to ensure the life, safety and physical integrity of the leadership and associates of the CCDA be guaranteed, as well as all members of the Juracán family.

I strongly urge the Ministerio Público and the Ministerio de Gobernación, with the support of the PDH and COPREDEH, to investigate these acts against the CCDA, and the Juracán family, so that those defending human rights in Guatemala can work free of persecution and that aggressions against human rights defenders do not remain in impunity.


On behalf of the Guatemala Project and the CCDA thank you all for your support around this issue.