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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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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 dingo ate my students!

Australian art by Thaneeya McArdle http://www.thaneeya.com/

Teach ’em Good is heading down under for a year(ish). I decided it was time to think about global education from a new latitude, with a new attitude.  Surf’s Up!

grade 9 geo takes to the streets

Now that classes are over, I’ve been taking more time to ride my bike and wander around Toronto’s vibrant neighbourhoods. Thanks to the creativity and critical thinking of my grade nine students, I’ve been seeing the streets that I’ve roamed for years through a new lens.

Spadina Remix - then and Now by AldenC on Flickr

The final summative for my Geography class was a neighbourhood field study. Students had to conduct field research as well as traditional research exploring an issue of their choice within a Toronto neighbourhood. They had to write an individual research paper and present a creative group oral presentation.

In groups, the students chose a neighbourhood in Toronto – the only limiting factor was that they could not choose an area that any of their group members live in.  Each student chose an issue in their neighbourhood, asked a question and came up with a thesis  which they supported with demographic evidence from the City of Toronto’s neighbourhood profiles as well as qualitative evidence from their field study and support from sources including Toronto newspapers, real estate boards, and local blogs like spacing and Torontoist.

Questions ranged from “Does the name ‘Little Italy’ accurately represent the culture of the neighbourhood?” to “Why are homes in Forest Hill so much more expensive than similar homes in the suburbs?” to “What kind of person would want to live on the Island?” One students studied the demographics of the waterfront condo-land, asking, “Why is the population of the Harbourfront community growing so rapidly despite a  low birthrate?” I encouraged a student to look at a contemporary issue, and she ended up researching the new Bixi program and hypothesize about its success and its potential impact on tourism, commerce, and transportation in her neighbourhood.

When I was in high school, a flashy presentation involved funny hats & ties and maybe – maybe – a neon bristol board sign. Today, you ask grade nine students to do an oral presentation, and you get a full on travelogue. I was very impressed with some of the presentations! One group studied Queen St. W. and wrote a song, accompanied by a music video showcasing the neighbourhood’s attractions. This group, who studied Cabbagetown/Regent Park conducted interviews with locals, discussing issues like safety, gentrification, and the preservation of heritage homes:

This summative was a great way to get students out of their own bubble and onto the streets of Toronto. It forced them to pay closer attention to the stores, parks, hospitals, homes, and sidewalks of their city. Students gained an appreciation for the planning that goes into a neighbourhood, and for the multitude of factors and stakeholders  that work together to make a neighbourhood safe, clean, vibrant and liveable. So now when I wander these streets, I find myself counting doctors’ offices, looking for available parking, and scanning signage for languages other than English. It’s true – teachers really do learn from their students!

a bunch of kings and queens: spoken word for the last day of grade 9 english

I discovered something about teaching: the last day of school is heartbreakingly anti-climactic. The kids are busting out of their seats. They chuck all the graphic organizers and short stories and assignments that you poured your heart and soul into in the recycling bin, and barely turn back to shout, “Have a good summer!” as they tear out the classroom door and down a paper-strewn hallway.

I wanted to do something special on the last day, beyond playing music and feeding them chips and freezies. I won’t be returning to my school next year, and I wanted my Grade 9 students to know that I care about their futures, even though I won’t be there to shepherd them through the senior grades.

After Gil Scott Heron died last week, I was thinking about the power of poetry – a topic I blogged about last year. On the second last day of school, I showed one of my classes some of his videos, tying them into our unit on Raisin in the Sun and the Civil Rights movement. I came home and sat down and banged out a spoken word-style poem, which I then performed for my classes. It wasn’t memorized, and I stumbled a few times, but my students seemed to appreciate it.

It was affirming to see them pick up on the references scattered throughout the lyrics – references  to essay writing and to the texts that we studied throughout the year. Performing this in my classes and getting high fives from kids in the hallways after school made the last day of school a bit less depressing.

A Bunch of Kings and Queens

No more pencils no more books
No more teachers’ dirty looks!
But if the looks are dirty
You must not be in my classroom,
Because the kinds of looks I give are squeaky clean
Know what I mean?

If only you could have seen what I’ve seen:
A bunch of teens
A bunch of dreams
A bunch of kings and queens

On the first day of school I asked you to write a personal credo,
“I believe this teacher chick
is a total freaking weirdo”
(Never fear, Batman’s here, though
Our very own personal classroom superhero)
No matter what you wrote on that page,
There’s no chance you’d get a zero.

You think you don’t have any beliefs.
Well, I believe you do
When I look at every one of you
Read your writing
Hear you speaking
Learn your point of view
I believe one of the most radical things you can do
Is to give yourself permission to be YOU
And then, I believe we can do this learning voodoo
I believe it’s as simple as tying a shoe

In-line citations
Gave you heart palpitations
But you can argue, prove and explain
All hundred and one Dalmatians

Or just keep it to five paragraphs
This kind of proof don’t need a graph
Be like Moses use your words
So you never have to use your staff

Don’t be shallow like Bassanio
Don’t wait for three red cars to go
Don’t let the world defer your dream
Define your themes
Or foreshadow a life lived without extremes

You think your life’s ‘maktub’?
Wanna have more hits than You Tube?
Don’t just glance at the grade on your paper
Read the comments if you want to improve.

Have integrity,
Stop begging me for marks.
Ignite the sparks
That set off a learning bomb
Of brilliant knowledge destroying the dark

Think critically
You’re killin’ me!
Don’t be afraid of riddling me
With more questions than there’s gelato in Italy

I never sent you to the principal
This bond we’ve got’s invincible
I still respect your right to learn
Even if your pink sheet’s full
I won’t cut off a pound of flesh
As long as you don’t feed me bull…

Shifting topics in the middle of an essay
Making up excuses because you waited til the day
Before to do the chore of sitting down and thinking,
…And then thinking some more
…And then editing and proofreading
‘Til your pencil is sore

Mutual respect keeps us all out of trouble
Don’t burst this bubble
Look at every written word
Like you’re peering through the Hubble
Telescope
Have high hopes
Try to cope
With the deadlines and the pressure
That make you feel like you’re at the end of your rope

Dope! That was a simile
My rhymes are packed with imagery
I see the moonlight reflected in shards of glass
Inspiration’s what you’ve given me
And I hope I gave it back
Hope I helped you stay on track
Hope I showed you that it’s not about what you lack
Nor is it about what you own
You are not defined by your jeans
Or your laptop
Or your phone
Or by the times when you’re walking through a crowded hallway feeling all alone

Lots of cool people were nerdy in grade nine
Lots of smart people got bad grades in grade nine
Lots of loved people were left out in grade nine
Lots of kind people were bullies in grade nine
Lots of smooth people were awkward in grade nine
Lots of worried people are doing just fine
Keep learning your lessons,
I’ll keep learning mine.

This is my credo
It’s got me this far
Believe in yourself, whoever you are
You’d believe in yourselves if you’d seen what I’ve seen:
A bunch of teens
A bunch of dreams
A bunch of kings and queens

A VISIT FROM IMAGIN8R: The value of guest speakers in the classroom

A presentation from my friend Billie Mintz  – an award winning filmmaker and crusader for social justice – was just what my grade-eleven students needed to inspire them to see both their roles as students of the Social Sciences and as users of digital media in a new light.

I invited Billie to speak to my Introduction to Anthropology, Psychology, and Sociology (HSP3M) class because our final project in the course is a multimedia public service announcement incorporating insights from the three disciplines. My goal was to get the students thinking about what makes an effective PSA, and Billie’s talk made the students think deeply about both the medium and the message of their projects. Billie’s charismatic blend of “Web Scientist,” edgy comedian, and genuine do-gooder kept the students laughing, thinking and questioning.

Using admittedly inaccurate but highly truthful graphs and diagrams, clips from YouTube and from his own films projects, and a personable and humorous tone, Billie explored why so many of the messages put out by so-called media experts flop while seemingly random content goes viral. He began by sharing some observations about humanity gleaned from studying viral videos and people’s reactions to them.

The Message in the Bottle

The second part of the presentation was centered around The Message in the Bottle, a campaign that Billie’s non-profit, ARC Institute,  created in partnership with Molson. He zeroed in on the failure of the many shareholders in the fight against irresponsible drinking, including brewers, law enforcement, non-profits, and the government. He pointed out that while the messages about alcohol consumption are traditionally created behind closed doors, a more effective campaign must not only target but also include the people affected by the problem – that is, the students and youth who are surrounded by a culture of irresponsible binge drinking. The internet allows new forms of participation and communication between people whose ideas deserve a platform, and Billie’s work incorporates these voices to craft provocative, engaging, and interactive stories.

After gaining the students’ respect and piquing their interest through humour, Billie switched to a somber tone, telling the class about the alcohol related death of his young cousin, which motivated him to speak out about irresponsible drinking.

Finally, he fielded questions and gave the students advice about each of their chosen topics, reminding them that as social scientists it is more important to ask good questions and conduct probing research than it is to broadcast a one-way message.

In the hallways after class, many of the students thanked me for inviting Billie to speak, and told me that his insights had made them rethink their projects. On a selfish note, having access to someone like Billie raised my cool quotient among these notoriously hard-to-impress teenagers.

good illustration of irony

Note to self: next time a kid doesn’t get what irony is, show this clip from Portlandia: