Goodbye Guacamole: Finding Balance in the Crazy World of Education

Goodbye Guacamole: Finding Balance in the Crazy World of Education

12814244_10156710943540134_2235263687946280847_n.jpgI have spent three of the last four weeks in Mexico. On our last day here in the sun, I realize that this is likely the first and last time (until possibly retirement) where I will have the opportunity to relax this much mid-year. For the first week, I was invited to participate in We Move Forward – an amazing Wellness Retreat for Women in Isla Mujeres where I presented on the Science of Happiness and Impact of Giving. After four days back at work I was packing again and heading to San Jose del Cabo for Spring Break with friends and family for two weeks in the sun. Continue reading

Pop’s Sparkling Eyes: A Lifetime of Learning

Pop’s Sparkling Eyes: A Lifetime of Learning

My Pop had the most amazing character. He was hard working, honest, friendly and intelligent. His father died when he was a teen, so he grew up fast, working hard to support his mother.  A motorcycle accident stopped him from going to war, and in the hospital he fell in love with his nurse, my Nanna.  Together they crafted a formula for raising six children:  hard work,  witty humour and a whole lot of love.  Nothing was more important to Pop than his family, and his sparkling eyes let us see through to his soul.  Without much formal education, he was a scholar of life, cherishing and appreciating knowledge as he found it.  On his breaks at work, he would sip his coffee and Continue reading

Head Lice, Onesies and Basketball: My Introduction to Elementary World

Head Lice, Onesies and Basketball: My Introduction to Elementary World

Approximately a year ago I sat in a boardroom interviewing for a principal position. The interviewing panel of school trustees and district leadership team members asked a series of questions on emotional intelligence, my views on education and what others would say about my leadership style.  I felt comfortable answering the questions with lots of examples to back up my skill set.  And then came the next question “What about elementary school…. would you be open to an elementary placement?”  I answered yes.  “Can you tell us about your elementary experience?”  I knew long Continue reading

Ideas from Educon

Last month I had the pleasure of attending the Educon 2.6 Conference in Philadelphia.  My intention was to blog about  take away ideas within a couple days of the conference.   I’m not quite sure what happened but somehow I took a month hiatus  from this blog.  I have spent more time writing at but havcn’t found the time to share education ideas here.  And now I feel like a kid with 30 excuses about why I haven’t done my homework…  Regardless, the conference was outstanding and the ideas are worth sharing. So – without any further delay, here are the top 5 things I took away from Educon.

1. You need to visit Philadelphia and the Science Leadership Academy.  This amazing school teaches all of their curriculum through project based learning.  Regardless of the subject, students are assessed based on their five pillars: Inquiry, Research, Collaboration, Presentation and Reflection.   The school has partnered up with the community to create authentic learning opportunities.  For example, each week, the students visit the Franklin Institute as part of their science curriculum.   The school is buzzing with innovative ideas, creativity and students that are proud of their school and thriving in all regards.  If you have the change to get to Educon next year I would highly recommend it.

2. Encienda / PechaKucha / Ignite – call it what you wish – I LOVE it.   I had the opportunity to present in Philadelphia for five minutes using 20 slides.  As a presenter, I did not have control over the slide transitions.  I had 5 minutes, with 20 slides which advanced automatically every 15 seconds.  (PechaKucha is 20 slides at 20 seconds each).    As a presenter, this was intimidating!  Not only did i need to know my stuff, I needed to have a polished presentation where I stayed on track, and said what really mattered while I had the chance.  I found this presentation way more difficult to prepare for than an hour long presentation.  However – I loved it!  I was challenged, I had to be creative, and I had to simplify my presentation to maximize impact in a short period of time.    As an audience member I LOVED watching all the other presentations.  Every five minutes the topic would change which kept the entire audience engaged.  This would be a great strategy to use with students or at staff meetings or district meetings.

3. Story-Sharing Session:  At this workshop, the presenters from IZone (Office of Innovation, New York City Department of Education) taped powerful words  to a whiteboard.  They then took two minutes to tell a personal story about education themed around one of the powerful words.  The audience was invited to listen and also think of their own personal stories about innovation in schools.  If the presentation prompted you to think of your own story, you had the chance to present next.  You could either draw a line from the first powerful word to your chosen word, or if your word was not listed, you could write it one the white board and draw a line.  This teaching strategy encouraged the audience to listen but also required each person to find the connections and share with one another.  We quickly discovered how much our stories connected and how easily we could relate.  This would be a simple way for students  or staff to identify connections between them.

4. Design Thinking.  This was my favourite presentation at the conference.  Teachers from Mount Vernon School in Atlanta walked us through a  ‘Design Thinking’ exercise so we could experience the benefit of seeing change happen, while understanding the value of empathy in problem solving.  For example, their Socials Teacher spoke about his Alexander the Great Lesson, where students needed to get to know Alex as a person before they could figure out what advise they would give to him.  The science teacher had students watch a video of a woman hearing for the first time before asking the class to work together to create an improved cochlear implant.   In our workshop we were paired up and given the task of re-designing airplanes to improve the middle seat experience.   To teach this concept, we were asked to spend 8 minutes with our partner (2 sessions at 4 min each) where we listened to our partner explain their experience flying in the middle seat.  Then, based on the emotion we had heard, we were asked to go deeper for 6 minutes (2 sessions at 3 minutes each) to learn more about our partner.  My partner explained that she needed to move. She didn’t like feeling trapped.  When we went deeper I learned that she loves the outdoors, adventure sports and travel.  I was able to re-frame the problem and create a problem statement:  “Meg, a passionate community educator, needs a way to integrate adventure, movement and space into her middle seat flight because she is passionate about the outdoors and loves new experiences.”  I was then able to draw a protype for an airplane seat that resembled an IMAX experience with a moving chair and simulation video.    I loved this activity because the design I developed was rooted in empathy for someone else’s needs.  If I had started with my own needs, I would have re-designed the seat so I could spend more time talking to strangers – something completely different than what my new friend Meg was looking for.

5. Maker Movement.  I didn’t have the chance to attend the Maker Movement breakout but it seems to be getting more and more attention.  The idea is simply to create Maker Stations where students can use random materials to tinker, hack and create during the day to demonstrate their learning.  Two of our fabulous Thomas Haney teachers are modelling this for our staff by hosting a school wide ‘Maker Faire’ tomorrow afternoon.  Students will meet in one central area and gather materials and then return to subject specific learning spaces to demonstrate their learning.  (Value Village was more than happy to donate their random parts and pieces for our student creations)

After returning home from Educon, I am feeling inspired and energized to try these new ideas. I believe this is an exciting time in education.  We are learning more and more about teaching and learning and finding innovative ways to provide rich experiences for our students.  Teachers are more valuable than ever as they work one on one with students to help them explore their passions and discover what they love to learn about.  Educon was an amazing conference, not just because of the school itself, but also because it brought together innovative educators from across North America.   I’m looking forward to DisruptED Vancouver, this coming October as we too hope to offer a fabulous education conference, where we celebrate innovation, creativity and ideas that inspire.    Registration is now open with early bird rates until June 15th.

The Amazing Race: Pit Stop – Vancouver

I’ve always wanted to be on the Amazing Race.  In fact, my husband and I considered applying but our young sons cried at the thought of us leaving so we put that idea on hold.  However, the thought of racing around the globe, gaining new experiences, facing mental and physical challenges and racing against others is quite appealing.


For the last 24 hours, four of my colleagues and I have had the chance to unexpectedly, race across North America in an attempt to return to Vancouver from the Educon Conference in Philadelphia.  The plan seemed simple.

  1. Conclude the Conference.
  2. Walk to hotel.
  3. Go out for dinner.
  4. Go to bed.
  5. Get up.
  6. Pack up luggage.
  7. Go to airport.
  8. Fly from Philadelphia to Minneapolis.
  9. Wait 30 minutes.
  10. Fly from Minneapolis to Vancouver.

As I sit here typing this I am in the ‘much desired middle seat’, squished between two strangers on a flight out of Montreal.  Maybe I’m tired, maybe I’m delirious, but for some reason I find great pleasure reflecting on the past 24 hours.  I have just lived my first ‘Amazing Race’ adventure, and although I have a gut feeling we are the last team to arrive, I know I would not want to be on any other team.  Together we demonstrated an incredible blend of patience, creativity, intelligence, street smarts and humour as we have tackled roadblocks, U-turns and detours.

The adventure began roughly 24 hours ago as we were gathered together in a hotel room about to head out for dinner.

“This is an emergency.  DO NOT leave your hotel room.  DO NOT use the elevator, DO NOT use the stairs.  This is an emergency.”

Living our first ‘hotel lockdown’ in Philadelphia, our curiosity and sense of adventure kicked in.  With wit and street sense we locked our door, remained in our room and deduced that it was a minor emergency as the number of emergency vehicles responding did not warrant panic.  We laughed as we recalled the incredibly angry guest from the second floor whom we had met on night one.  Clearly he had finally snapped and must be responsible.  By the time the PA repeated the announcement for the 25th time, I decided I should use my phone to capture the comforting message so we could laugh again in the future.  When the alarm finally stopped we assessed the hallway, only to find four panic stricken ladies in the fire escape.  We calmed them down with the knowledge we had gained by calling the front desk and let them know the emergency was over.  They explained they were four librarians in pajamas.  I told them that was a great name for a band.  Not sure they agreed.

Eventually we found some food, shared ideas from the conference and headed back to our rooms to get some sleep for our travel day.

The day started out great, with a run through Philadelphia, straight up the Musuem of Art steps (as seen in Rocky).  If this was the Amazing Race, I’m sure the yellow envelope would have been waiting right by the Rocky statue (which for some reason has now been relocated to the bottom of the steps)

The card would have read “Make your way to your next pit stop: Vancouver”.  We patiently waited for the complimentary hotel shuttle only to figure out after the fact that there was nothing complimentary about it – $50 please.

Together we arrived at the airport, had our Starbucks confiscated by security, and proceeded to our boarding gate.  Clearly, we must be in first place. It was noon and our flight to Minneapolis would not depart until 2:40 PM.

“Attention passengers, your flight has been delayed. Your new departure time is 3:33 PM”   An interesting twist.  A 57 minute delay.  In Minneapolis we were scheduled to have a 55 minute layover.  It appeared we could miss our connecting flight.   Time to ask some questions, and time to hear some interesting options presented to us by our sweet by perhaps inexperienced ticket agent:

“I’m sorry but we need to re-route you.  Four out of the five of you are now scheduled to go to New York – and we are trying to send the fifth traveller to Seattle”

“oh wait – we have now canceled the flight to New York but we can still get 4 of you on the  flight from New York to Vancouver”  Great – a detour.  Love it.

“To get to your New York flight, I can try to fly you to an airport 30 minutes from JFK and then you can race to get your flight.  No – sorry – I can’t do that – you could all leave now and use public transit.  It takes about 2 hours and costs $40 but you could possibly get there in time”

“I’m sorry, that might not work– you will be staying another night in Philadelphia”  This wasn’t the end of the world but we decided to ask some more questions.

“Actually – I found something here – I can fly you to Montreal – would that be close enough for you to drive home to Vancouver?”  I smiled and suggested it would be similar to driving yourself home from New York to Seattle.   At this point, we decided to use our Geography knowledge and some problem solving skills.  We asked the ticket agent how we could help.  I asked if she would like a drink.  She requested a Pepsi.  I asked if anyone else would like something, to which a large man in the waiting area let me know he needed a 7-Up. Next thing you know I was on a shopping mission for drinks for strangers.  Our principal asked if he could help look for flights.  She eagerly agreed and asked him to call their help line so another agent could search for flights.  Together as a group we suggested possible big cities that would have connecting Vancouver flights such as Montreal, Seattle, Chicago etc.   In time, with our guidance our agent found a solution.  “I have you all on a flight to Montreal – and then to Vancouver – but you have to RUN – catch the connecting shuttle across the airport and get to Gate F 29 before the scheduled departure in 30 minutes”  Great.  Just like the race we were running through our first airport.

Time for the U-Turn.  “Attention passengers – your flight has been moved to gate F33.”

Another U-Turn. “Attention passengers – your flight has been moved back to gate F29”

Roadblock:  “Your flight has been delayed until 4:15”

Roadblock: “Your flight has been delayed until 5:00 PM”   Despite the high pitched emergency alarm ringing uncontrollably, we eventually boarded our flight to Canada.   So nice to be almost home in our own country we thought.

“Welcome to Wisconsin Air’s flight to Montreal.  Unfortunately the water pipes on this plane that are used for making coffee or washing your hands are frozen, though we have provided wet wipes as a substitute.”  That’s awesome – I’m sure wet wipes squeezed together with some coffee grinds make an awesome blend.  Who needs Starbucks after all?  For an hour we took time to rest and marveled at the amazing sunset high above the clouds.  We landed safely with time to spare.

“I’m sorry mam, but the chance of us finding your luggage is not good.  See the Delta counter”

“You booked on Delta but flew on US Airlines.  Please see them”

“You will have to fill in this form, take it to carousel 10, get a stamp and run it back to us”   Hmmmm.  I started to inquire…. “I have a flight in 50 minutes – do you think I will miss it?”   “Yes, maybe”.   And so the race continues…..

“I’m sorry – we have stopped boarding that flight and we are no longer checking luggage.” (for those of us who still had luggage)

“The plane is still there – you will have to run.  They will not wait.”

Time to use some great communication with the guards at security.  “Excuse me, we have a flight leaving in 15 minutes – would it please be possible for us to move ahead in the line?”

“No.” Well, I guess that answers that.  Enter the hurry up and wait followed by a long sprint through the Montreal airport.  For the first time in my life I ran passed a Starbucks and didn’t stop.  I’ll have to process that one again later.  We actually had to run passed 30 gates – this time with some real speed – enough that I wondered if any of the weary people waiting for flights popped up with excitement expecting to see the film crew chasing us J

“Hello.  You have made it in time, but we have oversold the flight.  We do not have seats for you.  You will not make this flight.”  Well that’s kind of cool – none of us have spent time in Montreal.

“Some of the passengers assigned seats have not checked in.  If they do not arrive we will give you their seats”

“Come with us – we have seats for you.”

“I’m sorry Miss – you both have tickets for seat 13B – could you please come with me?”  (not sure I wanted lucky row 13 anyway and I’m sure the 200 passengers staring at me with eyes that scream HURRY UP are really appreciated the nice smile I’m giving them).

Maybe I’m over-tired but as I sit here cramped on the ‘less than ideal seat’ I cannot help but smile.  Today was an amazing journey.  I met new people,  (such as the ex-convict who wants to see Vancouver but can’t cross the boarder but was happy to share that his son is on a new path and just finished rehab) ,I saw the twinkling lights of New York flash on and off through a thick cloud cover and I watched the sun set over a Montreal skyline from thousands of feet in the air.  I got to connect with colleagues and have rich discussions about education and life in general.  I also got the gift I so often ask for – more time.  I had time to people watch, time to wonder about the stories behind those with peculiar outfits, time to read, time to sleep and time to write.

Today has been an Amazing Race – an incredible journey full of roadblocks, U-turns and detours.    When it comes to time, we are clearly the last to arrive, but when it comes to relationships, human behaviour and spirit (which really is the best part of the show anyway), I have to say, I am so glad I got to be part of this team. We might not be leaving with a million dollars (or even my luggage for that matter), but we have returned home strengthened, charged with new ideas, and united as a team that played the game well, blending creativity, intelligence, problem solving skills, patience and humour.  And as long as I don’t kill the passenger beside we who is chomping Swedish berries with his mouth open, this will turn out to be an Amazing Race I won’t soon forget.


Beyond HELLO: A Sunday with Purpose

If you drive down East Hastings Street on an ordinary day, you can look out your car window and see the faces of people who have lost their purpose: lost souls, who have traded away hope in exchange for darkness.   Today was different.  East Hastings was alive, and purpose was abundant.  As we arrived just after 12:30 PM, the streets were flooded with activity.  Church groups handed out meals, the local bottle depot managed the crowds awaiting payment, movie extra’s roamed the streets as a back drop for a new film and the  Downtown Eastside Sunday Street Market was in full swing.  It seemed everyone had a purpose, or at least something to occupy their time.


I too had a purpose, yet today was different than previous months.  Today my plan was to make not one, but two new friends.  You see, usually I travel to the Downtown Eastside with family, friends or students and invite residents of the Downtown Eastside community to participate in Project HELLO or Beyond HELLO.  I then share the stories through my blog.  Last month, a lady named Donna contacted me after reading my blog post through a link a mutual friend had shared.  She asked if I would go ‘Beyond HELLO’.  She would pay for lunch, in exchange for the opportunity to have conversation – with each other – and hopefully with someone living in the Downtown Eastside.  I agreed.

As Donna and I drove, we went ‘Beyond HELLO’.  We talked about family, health, spirituality, intuition and our life experiences.  The conversation went well beyond the surface level conversations that usually occur when you first meet someone.  Instead we spoke about connections that exist between all people and the opportunities we have to act in ways of significance.  We spoke of the importance of listening to our inner voices, and taking time to Be.  By the time we reached the Downtown Eastside, we had formed a connection based on mutual respect and understanding.

As we searched for a parking spot, I spotted Sandra Bonneau, the woman who I believe is the heart of the Downtown Eastside.  She has survived the streets for over 20 years, has struggled with addiction, abuse and health complications yet her spirit shines.  Like always, she greeted me with her toothless smile and sparkling eyes.  She was excited to hear that the group of high school students who found her daughter for her five years ago would all be in town for Christmas.  I let her know that they would be back from university and wanted to wish her a happy birthday on December 22nd.  We agreed to meet up and I offered to bring a birthday cake.  I asked if there was anything she needed as a birthday gift.  She replied saying ‘just your presence’.   I smiled and offered her lunch.  She smiled back, knowing others needed our offer more than she did, so she politely declined and we parted ways.

We wandered through the street market, marvelling at the collection of stolen goods being sold in an open market place.  We considered offering lunch to some of the men who passed by with their life’s belongings in  shopping carts – but we didn’t – as we both knew they would refuse.  Leaving their carts unattended would be too substantial a risk in this neighbourhood.  We wandered back up Hastings and offered lunch to a few others who looked like they could use a meal.  Each refused. At one point Donna wondered if perhaps today was just about the two of us going ‘Beyond HELLO’.  It felt as though it was.  We decided to stand at a busy corner on Hastings and let others approach us.  Being still in their neighbourhood seems to be a less invasive approach.  Within minutes we had a lady hoping to help me find Garth (Beyond HELLO – August) and another woman in a wheel chair who recognized me and wanted to let me know about her daughter and the special visit she had with her grandson.  To be honest, I didn’t recognize her.  Have we helped her before? I’m not sure.  She thought so, so I stopped and we had a nice chat.  As we began to wonder if anyone wanted lunch, a lady passed by approaching the crosswalk.  Her hair was tangled and slept on, her clothing reflected warmth more than style, and her eyes were guarded.  Our eyes met for a second, like she was scanning the neighbourhood to make sure it was safe.  She walked by, but then, turned back and looked at us over her shoulder.  I don’t remember who spoke first, but I know her eyes changed, and she looked at us with curiosity and perhaps trust.  We asked if she was hungry.  She said yes – in fact that’s why she was out from her BC Housing shelter.  She was hoping to find a warm meal.  Together the three of us walked towards the Save On Meats diner.

As we walked towards the diner, we walked like three friends.  Shelley introduced herself and made sure she learned our names quickly.  As we entered the diner, she commented on how nice it was – and mentioned it might be a nice spot to bring her boyfriend for his birthday on New Year’s Eve.

As we approached the counter – the waitress explained that we could take an order form and create our own breakfast meal, salad, sandwich or burger.  Shelley suggested we take the forms to the table to sit down together and then decide.  Not wanting to ask if she was literate, I read the menu choices out loud and together we discussed what we should eat.

Shelley thought about a sandwich – and referenced her need to be healthy – briefly reflecting on her time years ago when she worked as an aerobics instructor in Toronto.  She thought a sandwich would be nice – but when I started to ask her about the different bread options  or toppings you could see the decision was too overwhelming.  Between her addiction to crack, methadone use and recovery from being struck by a van last year, she struggles to stay with one thought for more than a minute at a time.  Through our conversation you could see her eyes literally fade in and out of awareness.  In some moments it looked as if she needed to sleep – in others she was alive, present and willing to share with us.  Perhaps because of the perplexity of the order form, or perhaps because the smell of burgers and fries surrounded us, Shelley changed her mind from the sandwich form and said she would rather have a burger and fries.  Donna agreed and ordered the same.  Shelley asked if I would have a burger too.  I explained that I needed to order a salad as I am 1/2 way through a 12 day cleanse with a friend at work therefore I cannot eat burgers or fries.  As the words left my mouth I recognized how shallow it seemed – here I was – explaining to a lady who searches the streets for food – why I am only eating certain foods to detoxify my body.  And yet I also felt it was human to share.  She smiled and I laughed and said “it’s crazy – the things women will do!”  She agreed and let me know she would put the ketchup and mustard on her burger herself.  She then winked and said that was one of her secrets for staying thin.

The waitress arrived with coffee.  Shelley’s cup had an inch of space at the top for cream or sugar.  Shelley let the sugar pour.  Intentionally – enough that the cup started to overfill.  She mumbled about the cup being too full and stirred her new concoction – 3/4 coffee, 1/4 sugar.  As she tried to steady her shaking hand the coffee spilled.  Donna and I wiped it up as she drank – and eventually helped by pouring some out into a water glass.

Shelley shared her life story – growing up with a military police father – where she was never sure if she should get closer or further away.  She didn’t connect with her mom and ran away from home a couple times but was always welcome back by her dad.  Her mom decided to grow distant from her father while she decided to get closer.  When her dad died from cancer twenty five years ago she was devastated and turned to crack.  As a server in bars, she made her way across the  country eventually finding her way to the Downtown Eastside.  She fell in love but lost her partner to cancer as well.  Yet – despite the drug addiction and pain she continually referenced her mantra of staying positive and not looking back.  I asked what that was about – she answered with clarity.  For Shelley it was about god – and staying true to her faith.  She then turned to us with certainty and said – you need to remember you are not where you are at just because of him – promise me you will give yourself credit too.  We smiled.

Shelley ate her burger and fries with urgency. Between bites she would pause for a split second and ask what else we would like to know.  She had questions about her current relationship and wanted our advice.  Her boyfriend wants her to move in with her – and has even discussed marriage – but something is holding her back.  When I asked if he was the one she laughed.  Donna asked if he was the one for now – and she smiled saying he was a good man who really loved her.  She talked about her own behaviours, commenting that many would leave – but he chooses to stay.  She then took time to ask us if we were married and how me met our spouses.  Fading in and out of conversation, Shelley seemed to be hit with a burst of consciousness – and she raised her coffee cup in the air and offered a toast “to happiness, Christmas, and meeting new people.”  Together we clanked our glasses, smiled and enjoyed each others company.

I ended with a usual question, asking Shelley what she wanted others to know about the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. She answered with this: “It’s changing. And what it’s missing is a place to talk.  A place to clear your head and talk through problems. A place to feel safe and have real conversations.”   We smiled knowing exactly what she was trying to say.

As Shelley stood up to leave, she turned back and asked each of us for a hug.  We then had a group photo and promised to send a copy in the mail.  Shelley left to meet up with her boyfriend, Donna and I drove home, all of us knowing we had just gone Beyond HELLO and experienced a Sunday with purpose.


Feedback From My Dog

Some dogs hate thunder storms.  From what I understand, they shake, whimper or hide somewhere safe.   Our puppy is 18 months old now and until today, loud noises like fireworks or thunder have not bothered him.  Tonight was different.  My 100 lb. golden doodle was doing everything he could to ‘be small’.  He tried to hide under the kitchen table, he shook, and he drooled all over the floor.  It wasn’t pretty.  photo[2]

But here’s the thing… there wasn’t a storm tonight.  No fireworks, no thunder.  Instead, just the not so pleasant sound of me learning to play the saxophone.  You see – I work at this incredibly cool self directed school called Thomas Haney, where the teachers are not afraid to live their learning.  Conversations about innovation and inquiry happen daily, and the idea of teachers joining in to learn with our students is not a foreign concept.

However, when eleven of us travelled together to the ‘CCSDL Above & Beyond Your Wildest Imagination Conference’ in Edmonton last month, some of our ideas truly fit the title.  Somewhere over the course of the four days, a conversation took place where we decided we would head back to school and we would all go well beyond our comfort level and learn something new.  Each of us would learn an instrument we had never touched before and together we would form a band.  To be honest, I don’t even think I was in the room for the conversation.  All I know is I left Edmonton with information that I was now in a band.  Ironically, I have not held an instrument since my grade nine music teacher asked me to drop out of band after a previous trip to Edmonton where I apparently broke too many band trip rules (his opinion at least).

Since returning to Thomas Haney, we have met once a week to practise.  And I would like to tell you we are starting to sound good.  But that’s not true.  To be honest – we are horrible.  The sound from the music room Tuesdays at lunch is enough to prompt a school evacuation.  Thank goodness for sound proof walls and a patient music teacher.  Together, we are learning the clarinet, flute, oboe, saxophone, piano, trumpet, trombone, drums and accordion.   I think we are all trying to play the same song – but from the sounds of it – I’m not quite sure.

But here’s what I do know.  We are taking risks.  We are learning and we are having fun. We are putting ourselves in a position that we ask our students to take each day.  We are starting with very little knowledge or ability, but we trust that with time and effort we will learn, and together we will get better.  What I love, is that we are trying something that doesn’t come naturally to us.  As teachers, we often discuss pedagogy, blending our own experiences with theory, yet in reality, many of us have not struggled as learners. We have each successfully navigated our way through high school and university so do we really know what it is like to fear learning?

I don’t know that I did.  Until now.  Every Tuesday at lunch, I know exactly what it is like to struggle.  I have watched youtube videos on the saxophone, read the music book and practiced (a bit), yet still, the sounds that escape the instrument ranges from a howling cat to a squeaking car brake.  And I’m glad.  I’m glad we are starting out like this – and I’m glad we are capturing it for our students to see.  Eventually we will be able to demonstrate the progress we made, and share our learning journey with our students.  We are laughing and we are working together.  Not only are we forming a band – we are experiencing what it is like to be vulnerable and learn something new.

And – here’s the thing:  I think we are getting better.  You see, last week when I was practicing, my husband opened the door to let the dog out.  The noise from my instrument caused a ripple effect and every dog for a mile was howling.  Tonight – it was just my dog, drooling all over the floor and hiding his head under the table.   I’d say that means I’m getting better. That’s some pretty authentic feedback, even if it’s coming from the dogs 🙂

Go Slow: A Twist on HELLO

As many of you know, I spend a lot of time on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, engaging the homeless in meaningful conversation.  The project, Beyond HELLO, captures the untold stories of a neighbourhood often forgotten and misunderstood.  Recently, I created a new blog where I share these stories – and where I encourage others to seize the opportunity to go Beyond HELLO in their own lives.  While most the stories I have written about with Beyond HELLO relate to the homeless, the simple concept of buying lunch for a stranger and engaging in conversation could happen anytime, anywhere.   This week at school, our students decided to go Beyond HELLO and form some beautiful new friendships…  Here’s how the story unfolded:

Last week our principal arranged for our school to host some very special visitors.  Residents from a local seniors home filled their shuttle and drove to our school for lunch.  In anticipation of the event, we planned the details…. our culinary students set the tables and prepared the meal; our leadership students waited near the door, a yearbook student was ready with his camera and the welcome sign was in place to greet our guests.  We took care of the details and everything ran smoothly as expected.  From a tangible perspective, the event was similar to what I have seen in other schools.  However – this visit was anything but average or routine.  This two hours of time was magical.

You see – there are some things we didn’t plan – or at least some things where we could not anticipate the outcome.  The first happened just as they arrived.   First of all, we did not realize how elderly our guests would be.  It turns out that most of our guests were over 90 years old.  One spry woman named Dorothy surprised us all when she let us know she had recently celebrated her 101th birthday.  As our guests stepped off the bus, some of them struggled to find their footing as they navigated the curves of the sidewalk and waited for their walkers to be unloaded.  One woman named Joan reached out her hand and placed it in my hand – not with a sense of panic or nervousness – but just for comfort and a little extra support.  Within seconds, I felt a special connection with Joan.  Together we stood, holding hands, introducing ourselves, preparing for the walk down our long hallway.  A hallway I rush down every day.  A hallway that seemed so much more enjoyable when I took the time to go slow.

When we reached the last room down the hallway, our guests sat down to an amazing meal.  They enjoyed the lunch and raved about our chef’s homemade chicken pot pie.  When the dishes were cleared, we asked if we could invite some students in simply to enjoy conversation.  Our guests agreed and our leadership students entered the room.  Rather than planning who sat with who, we just let the relationships form.  Within seconds, each student had found a senior to connect with. Some spoke in small groups, some in pairs.  Together they shared conversation about their high school experiences – marvelling in the similarities and differences of school 3 generations apart.  I sat with Joan, and together we discussed her career in nursing, her family, and her love of learning.  She giggled as she spoke of Halloween – where she had painted her face black and dressed in costume so the other residents could not identify her.  She spoke of her journey learning to paint with acrylics – something she began for the first time just a year ago, at the age of 97.   I asked what she would like to learn next year – and she smiled and said she didn’t know yet – but there would be something.  Together we chuckled about our dislike for e-readers and and our love for paper books.  In one moment, when I looked in her eyes, I didn’t see Joan – instead I saw my grandmother – a woman I miss dearly. A wonderful woman with a generous spirit, and great sense of humour who had  also been a nurse and loved nothing more than a good meal and time with family.  I know my grandmother would have liked Joan.  In fact, we discovered they may have even worked at the same hospital at one time.   Holding Joan’s hand and seeing her eyes sparkle was a gift: a delicate blend of new friendship woven eloquently with cherished memories from my past.   Looking around the room I could see our students beaming, as they to took time to have meaningful conversations.  Their eyes filled with joy as they made real connections sharing stories, building friendships and learning from one another.


Shortly before 2 PM, we thanked our guests for coming, and decided to take one slight risk.  You see – our school is just about to embark on an exciting learning journey.  One of our fabulous teachers, Nicole Von Krogh was moved by the book and documentary ‘15 Reasons to Live‘.  She has decided to weave this into her Family Studies curriculum in the coming months.  The idea is simple.  She will ask each of her student to be thoughtful and take the time to recognize their 15 Reasons to Live.  How they present their reasons will be up to them – some may choose to use technology, others may use photography or spoken word.  What’s most exciting is that Nicole’s contagious enthusiasm for her project has inspired many other teachers on staff to join in with their classes. Both staff and students have committed to the ’15 Reasons to Live Project’.  So far our staff have found ways to build cross curricular connections blending this project with the learning outcomes for Grad Transitions, Social Justice, English, Learning Support, Leadership and Family Studies.   The project has yet to begin but the momentum is growing each day.

Nicole took some time to explain this powerful project to our seniors and we left them with an invitation.  Without any pressure, we invited them to leave with ‘homework’.  We asked them to think about their 15 Reasons to Live.  We also left them with a promise – if they decide to participate – and they are willing to develop their list, our students are willing to use their technology skills to capture the project  (perhaps a movie or slideshow that they can pass on to their families).  We also left them with the idea of attending a spring exhibit – where students and seniors could shine together showcasing their 15 Reasons to Live.

To our delight, our guests were quite willing to share their stories and think about what really mattered to them.  One by one they agreed to do their homework.  A retired principal from the group put his hand up and clarified by saying “what I hear is that you are willing to help us with our autobiographies.”  We smiled and said yes.  With certainty he let us know we could sign him up.  Another guest, Frank, chuckled and shook his head in disbelief “We are going to be friends with the Principal!  Now this is different!”

In just two hours, our students and our local seniors created magic.  They took the time to have conversation that mattered – time to get to know one another on a real level.  They took time to go Beyond HELLO.

I’m hoping that this post will inspire you to go Beyond HELLO as well.  Whether you are connecting with a senior, a child, a neighbour you have never met, or a passerby whose untold story intrigues you, I hope you take the time to go Beyond HELLO.   Invite someone to coffee or lunch and take time to hear their story.   If you do, please share your stories at   I guarantee you will get more than you give.   And who knows – if you are like me, this simple act may just become one of your 15 Reasons to Live.


Beyond HELLO: Feeling Alive


At 66 years old, Les has already defied the odds.  On the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, those who make it to the age of 40 are considered seniors and eligible for discount cards issued from Carnegie Centre.  Yet, as Les told us late this afternoon, he just doesn’t feel old.  With sparkling eyes and a youthful spirit, he feels alive.  Les has survived the dark days on East Hastings and has lived to tell about it.  He has learned some hard lessons in life, and paid the price, serving time behind bars in Maple Ridge just a few years ago for drug trafficking.  He doesn’t make excuses – he admits he was on the wrong path, and prison was what he needed to make the choice to never go back to old habits.  He lives without regret, and wouldn’t change his past, as it has shaped who he is today. With a toothless smile and laugh lines in all the right places, Les demonstrates an admirable sense of resilience.  Living in Canada’s poorest neighbourhood has not dampened his spirit.

 In month four of Beyond HELLO, Les joined my principal Sean Nosek and I for a late lunch today at the Lost and Found Café.  In exchange for a warm meal, Les agreed to let us share his story.  Les reflected on his life with appreciation for the good times, even finding the positive lessons that emerged from his time behind bars.

Les grew up in a Chinese immigrant family, attending local Vancouver schools – Strathcona, Britannia and Van Tech.  He was never really that good at school, and at the age of 18 he had only achieved a grade 8 education.  With a need for adventure and curious spirit, Les joined the army.  In his four years of service he traveled the world, serving our country.  His favourite adventures include the warm Mediterranean water in Cyprus and training days jumping from planes at the Army Airborne School in Alberta.

After four years of service, Les returned to BC and took a job in Prince George.  Initially he worked in the kitchen for Northwood Pulp and shortly after took a physical job in the mill.  He hated the manual labour of the mill and decided to explore his love of the kitchen.  Les reminisced about days when the ‘Keg & Cleaver’ and ‘Hindquarter’ were the top restaurants in town.  He worked his way up from kitchen help to 2nd cook and eventually head cook.  The hours were long, the lifestyle was draining and the split shifts consumed all of his time.  Facing exhaustion, he decided to make a change and venture to Toronto to live near his brother.  It was in Toronto that he found the balance he was looking for.  He fell in love and married his wife, and secured a job as a baker for Loblaws; a job he kept for over two decades.  Unlike most I have talked to, Les preferred to skim over the details of the triggers and turning points that sent him back to the DTES. Yet, unlike most, who live with the pain, Les appeared to be free from his past.  He let us know his marriage fell apart, his brother died, his parents both died and he turned to drug trafficking as his means for survival.  The streets of Vancouver became his home.  Unlike most whose eyes search for approval or understanding when telling of their past, Les is different.  He is matter of fact about the wrong turns in his life, and seems to have forgiven himself for the pain and mistakes in his life.  Perhaps this is why Les has survived to 66 in Canada’s roughest neighbourhood.  His lightness is perhaps his best survival skill.

Today Les lives month to month relying on his old age security cheque.  He receives $1400 / month to cover his rent, food and expenses.  He lives in modest, low income housing yet he takes pride in his home, where he has his own kitchen, his own television and room for his roommate, Smoky the cat.

Through our conversation, we took some time to tell Les a little about our lives.  When we mentioned we were high school administrators, he smiled back at us, saying “that’s ok”, with an understanding that many who have failed at school do not have the fondest memories of the principal’s office.  Les was surprised that we had driven from Maple Ridge to take someone for lunch.  I let him know a little about Beyond HELLO, sharing my goal of taking one person for lunch each month.  I explained my own view, that the neighborhood is plagued by unnecessary judgment and that each person on the streets has a story worth hearing.  He smiled in agreement.

When I asked Les what he would want others to know, he paused momentarily, and then explained how the neighbourhood works.  Everyone knows everyone.  He may not know all the names, but he knows the faces.  It is a community, yet everyone living on the streets has their own means for survival. In the words of Les, “everybody has their own thing – their own way to survive.” I suspect Les’s positive disposition may just be his strongest armor.  His smile spreads ear to ear as he lets us know that even the police walking the streets of Hastings like him now.  They know he is drug free and only sells cigarettes for extra income.

Knowing that Les knows the faces of the DTES, I decided to ask him if he knew some of the people who have shared their stories with me in the past.  We spoke of Cynthia, Garth, and Cindy.  While he didn’t know their names, he recognized Cynthia and Garth enough for us to have casual confirmation about their whereabouts.  Next, I asked him if he knew Sandra, otherwise known as ‘Little Momma’.  I described her in detail, as the first woman I had met on the DTES back in 2009.  I spoke of her slender build, her mobility struggles and her kind heart.  Within seconds, Les knew exactly who I was talking about and with excitement, as if he had big news to share, he blurted out rather loudly – “HEY – did you know she found her daughter!”  With equal excitement, and perhaps less humility I blurted back “I found her daughter!”  Sandra, and her daughter Samantha from Alberta, are the first two people we reconnected through Project HELLO in 2009. Our students were so moved by this mother daughter connection and the human need for family to find each other that they fundraised and paid for Samantha to fly to Vancouver for a reunion.  We drove Sandra to the airport to greet her daughter and arranged a full weekend including hotel accommodations, hair cuts, meals, etc.  The experience will always be one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.  It was the springboard for Project HELLO and the inspiration for my students and I to turn our one-day fieldtrip into a lifelong project.  To have someone living on the Downtown Eastside quote this story back to me almost four years later, someone whom had no idea that I had anything to do with the reunion in the first place, was magical.   In a simple second something changed.   Les knew he had made our day, just as much as we had made his.  We ended with handshakes, some photos and a commitment to stay in touch by saying hi next time we are in his neighbourhood.  After paying the bill we ventured back out to Hastings in hopes of touching base with Sandra.  With a genuine eagerness to help, Les called out behind us – “I hope you find her”.  The sound of his voice said more than his words.  In the time it took to eat a meal, Les had another significant moment in a life worth living. Another reason to smile, and feel very alive.