Two Exciting Education Events for 2014

Happy New Year!  There’s something about January that I love.  Whether or not we keep our resolutions, the simple act of stopping to reflect on the year behind us and look at the new year with optimism gives us a sense of renewal and hope.  It also gives us direction for where we are headed.  “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”  ― Paulo CoelhoThe Alchemist

This coming year I am really looking forward to two exciting education events!  I am hopeful that you will join us in one or both!

1)  The first of the two events, is Make BC Smile – an initiative that students in my leadership class created.  Make BC Smile will take place in BC from Monday May 26th – Friday May 30th.  The premise is simple – have students engage in projects that spread kindness and help make people in BC stop and smile.  What I love about this project is how it came to be.  In October, I showed my leadership class a video I had found on Twitter, created by Massoud Adibpour.  He is a university student in Washington DC who decided to make it his mission to make DC smile.  He got some friends together and began the ‘Honk if You Love Someone Campaign‘.   My intention was simplistic.  I thought I would show the video to my students, and then we would repeat the idea by creating positive signs to hold on Lougheed Highway in Maple Ridge for one morning.  What happened next was pretty cool.  Local media learned of our project because passerby’s phoned the media and asked them to cover it.  The Province newspaper wrote ‘Happy Haney students spread the love with streetside rally‘. The secretaries at our school fielded multiple calls from drivers who wanted to thank the students for making their day.  One lady broke down in tears in the Starbucks line up sharing the impact the simple messages had that particular day.   As an educator, I LOVE the impact this day had on our students.  A couple of days later, one of my students, Caroline, approached me and asked if I had a plan for our leadership class the following week.  I asked why.  She told me she needed 20 minutes of the class.  She had taken it upon herself to contact Massoud Adibpour in Washington DC to let him know that we had repeated his project and she had made arrangements for him to join us via Skype to share ideas for positive projects in our communities!   On the Monday, during the Skype conversation, two other leadership students, Jenna & Miranda, thought of a new idea.  As members of the Maple Ridge District Student Advisory Council, they were in search of a motivational speaker for May for a grade 6-7 leadership conference.  What if Massoud & his girlfriend Bonnie could be the speakers? What if the leadership conference could include a district wide ‘Honk if you Love Someone’ campaign with grade 6-12 students lining the streets from East to West through Pitt Meadows & Maple Ridge?  As grade 12 students at Thomas Haney (a self directed school), they know how to negotiate, take initiative, and advocate for what they want.  So what did they do?  They did their research, looked up flights, contacted Massoud & Bonnie and convinced them not only to volunteer their time to come to Vancouver, but also to extend their stay for a week!  They then set up a meeting with our superintendent’s office to confirm funding.  This ALL happened before they shared the idea with me.  I told them I loved it – I just had one question…. where would they stay?   They smiled and said “at your house!”.  (Which our family is excited about)  I love how they have created this all on their own!  Their goal is to share their enthusiasm with others across the province.  For the week of May 26-30th the Maple Ridge – Pitt Meadows School District will work together spreading random acts of kindness throughout the community in an effort to ‘Make BC Smile’.  We would LOVE to have schools around the province join us.  If you would like to participate, please comment below and our students will be in touch and showcase your initiative on http://www.makebcsmile.com.  I know it will be an exciting week.  I’m smiling already!

2) The second event I’m looking forward to is a bit of a dream come true.  For those of you that know me well, you know I LOVE education and I LOVE planning events.  Well, this year, when a team of educators from our school travelled to Edmonton for the annual CCSDL Conference (Canadian Coalition of Self Directed Learning), we found out that the city scheduled to host the conference next year had to back out.  My principal Sean Nosek and I had already been speaking about planning an exciting pro-d event in Vancouver, so we decided to take the plunge and offer up our school as the next host school for this national teaching conference.  However, in talking with our teachers, we realized we have all reached a place where our expectations for Pro-D are changing.  We don’t want to be ‘talked-to’ – we want to participate.  We want to leave the conference inspired, and full of new ideas. We realized we crave something different – something new – something that shakes up education.  We want to plan a conference that we would like to attend… a conference that challenges us to be better educators and inspires us to try new ideas.  A conference that dares to disrupt education.

After a couple months of preliminary planning our ideas are starting to take shape.  Here’s what I can tell you so far….  DisruptED Vancouver will take place over three days, October 23 – 25th 2014.  The Thursday will take place at Thomas Haney Secondary and the Friday / Saturday will take place at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

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So what is DisruptED?  Our ideas are unfolding but here’s a glimpse into what we hope to create….

DisruptED is different.  It is not for those who want the future to look the same as today.  It is not for those who doubt our education system and what it can become.  DisruptED is for those who believe in the future of education and believe that we have a responsibility to create the best system we possibly can. It’s for those who want every student to have an education that is rich and meaningful.  It’s for those who are willing to challenge assumptions that hold us back and take bold steps to move education forward.

DisruptED promises to be a powerful 3 day conference in Vancouver, BC where great minds in education will gather together to share ideas that are innovative, promising, creative, hopeful and inspiring. DisruptED invites the rogues, the rule breakers, the ones interested in pushing the limits to step forward.   We will provide an opportunity for individuals and groups to come together, to share stories and ideas, united in our belief that beautiful things can happen when we disrupt the status quo.

And we could not promote this idea without living it.  DisruptED will NOT be a status quo conference.  Expect to participate.  Expect to create.  Expect to learn. Expect to teach.  Expect to think.  Expect to laugh.  Expect to experience the beauty of Vancouver as you join in walking conversations on Vancouver’s seawall, engage in rich dialogue in one of the city’s casual cafes, or use what you’ve learned to compete in the DisruptED Vancouver Amazing Race.  Expect to leave motivated, inspired, connected and ready to shake up education.

It’s time to DisruptED. 

I hope that you will consider joining us!  Our call for presenters will open this spring and our website will be announced later this month.   If you would like to join our mailing list please comment below.  For more information you can also contact us via email at Sean_Nosek@sd42.ca or Kristi_Blakeway@sd42.ca

As I look ahead to 2014, I do so with excitement and gratitude.  I cannot wait to join with students to Make BC Smile and connect with educators to DisruptED!

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Beyond HELLO: Feeling Alive

Les

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.

It’s Time to Disrupt Education

This past week I had the pleasure of traveling with ten staff members from Thomas Haney Secondary to attend the Canadian Coalition of Self Directed Learning (CCSDL) Conference.

This year, the conference was held in Edmonton, Alberta and hosted by St. Joseph’s High School.   Over four hundred educators across Canada gathered together to share best practices in self-directed learning and flex schooling (Alberta).  It was one of the best education conferences I have attended as it offered a rich line up of presentations, a school tour showcasing self directed learning in action and a well thought out agenda that balanced professional development with time to socialize and network with others.  The staff at St. Joseph’s did a phenomenal job organizing a first class conference with great attention to detail.

Thomas Haney has been a part of the Canadian Coalition of Self Directed Learning since the coalition’s inception in 1996.  The CCSDL was built with the idea that we are stronger when we work together and share ideas.  Thomas Haney School is now in it’s 22nd year of self-directed learning.  Attending the CCSDL conference each year allows our teachers to network with like-minded educators who are continually finding progressive ways to teach in a self directed system.  This forward thinking model allows for personalization, creativity, and innovation.

The three keynote speakers left us with ideas and inspired us to ask great questions. Lee Crocket, author of the 21st Century Fluency Project, introduced his Fluency 21 Unit Planner cloud-app where educators can collaborate and share unit plans.  He spoke to the importance of a gradual responsibility shift so that graduates can finish high school well able to manage their lifelong learning.    Garfield Gini-Newman, senior Lecturer at the University of Toronto and a senior national consultant with The Critical Thinking Consortium shared ideas on how to nurture self regulated critical thinkers.  One idea that stuck for me was the notion of starting each unit with a question of inquiry instead of teaching and then asking questions.  When students begin with a sense of wonder, their learning becomes more relevant.  This helps our students develop a lifelong inquiry mindset.  He also suggested students keep a thought book where they right down their initial thoughts and change their thoughts as they learn about a topic.  This book then allows the teacher to offer ongoing feedback and to recognize the learning journey for each student.  He suggested that teachers should move away from the stand and deliver instruction model, and even move away from the ‘guide on the side’ approach.  To fully engage students, teachers should see themselves as choreographers helping all of their students in their own learning journeys.  Maureen Suhendra, from the Khan Academy, spoke to how teachers can use the Khan Academy’s free educational resources in the classroom.  The Khan Academy now offers over 4300 videos in their free online education platform.  The Khan Academy is a great example of how education is changing, and how schools will need to meet the needs of a digital generation.

While the keynotes were all wonderful, perhaps the richest experience occurred naturally over the four days as the nine teachers and two administrators from our school strengthened our connections with one another.  With 11 of us travelling together, we represented ten teaching areas within our school and had a range of experience in self directed learning – some with over 20 years at Thomas Haney and others in their first year.  A natural synergy occurred, where conversation flowed easily and we were constantly able to ask ‘what if? questions.  We left the conference energized, inspired, and proud of where we are at as a school, but even more excited about where we are headed.  With enthusiasm, we accepted the invitation to be the host school for the 2014 CCSDL Conference.

Although we are in the initial planning stages, we know that we want to build on momentum and share educational practices that are engaging, creative and powerful.  We want to hear from both students and teachers, whose names you may not know, but whose stories you will not forget.   At next year’s conference we will showcase self directed learning but we will also extend our reach beyond the CCSDL, opening the invitation to any educator who is searching for ways to rejuvenate their teaching practice.  We will showcase educators who dare to be different:  the thinkers, the creators and the innovators who find ways for students to follow their passion while engaging in relevant learning experiences.

We have decided to align the conference with the BC Provincial Pro-D Day. On October 23, 24, and 25th, 2014, we will welcome educators from across the country to come together to ask questions, and celebrate innovative practices that are re-shaping education.  We are committed to our vision of hosting an amazing conference where educators can learn and grow together to help transform our schools to meet the needs of Canadian students.

We hope to see you there! More information will follow as we unfold our plans for the Vancouver CCSDL Conference – 2014!

Beyond HELLO: Cynthia’s Flower Shop

In Aboriginal culture, it is a common belief that storytelling is the best way to teach children, pass on legends and strengthen relationships and family.  On the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, over thirty percent of people struggling with homelessness and addiction are Aboriginal.  Yet, we fail to use storytelling to help them heal.  So often we offer food, clothing and shelter to meet their basic needs.  We forget about the emotional needs.  Recently on Facebook, a news story went viral.  It spoke of two states in the USA that have decided to stop issuing welfare cheques to anyone failing a drug test.  Some friends of mine hit the ‘like button’.  And you know what? I don’t blame them.  I get it.  Why should we as a society pay tax dollars to give money to someone who will spend it on drugs.  They must be making a choice right?   I understand the frustration.  Yet, I wonder, if these friends of mine would hit the ‘like’ button if they understood a little more about addiction.  If we choose to look deeper, we can see that the drugs are not the problem. They are merely an inadequate solution – to a problem that lies deeper – the problem that we really should address.  What I know from working on the Downtown Eastside is this.  Not everybody is homeless, not everybody is an addict, not everybody is sick – but everybody is in pain.   The pain began in a variety of ways.  For some it began as childhood trauma, for others it stems from abuse (sexual, physical or emotional).  Some grew up in ministry care while others were mistreated at residential schools.  Each person has a different story, but what I know from my work over the past five years is that every person living on the streets of the Downtown Eastside feels the pain.  They are not there for the drugs.  They are there for the escape from their reality, and for many, each hit offers temporary pain relief.  They are lonely, they are lost, but they are human, and they matter.  And each of them has a story to tell; a story worth sharing, so we on the outside can understand.

If we truly want to help an individual break the cycle of addiction, then my belief is that we have to change the way we respond.  We need to go ‘Beyond HELLO’ – beyond the basic needs, and start to address the emotional needs.  Just as Aboriginal Culture suggest, storytelling is a powerful way to teach, to heal and to learn.  It empowers the storyteller to find their voice and it captures the listener and leaves them a little different than they were before the story began.  I know these stories have changed me.  I hope they change you too.

 

Month 3 of Beyond HELLO Vancouver – Cynthia’s Flower ShopIMG_1255

It’s now 10 PM and I sit here typing, smiling at the way today’s events unfolded. I am so grateful to my students who help make this project a reality, and to the residents of the Downtown Eastside, who time after time, allow themselves to show courage and vulnerability as they share their stories with us.  Today was no different – yet it had a different beginning.  Usually with ‘Beyond HELLO Vancouver’ we journey to the DTES and take someone for lunch.  Later I sit and type out their story.  However, just before I left my home, I felt ready to write.  This didn’t really make much sense as the experience had yet to begin and I was already running late to pick up Anoop, the student who would join me for the day. However, the need was there and I felt I had to get my thoughts down.  Rather than writing, I used the recording feature on my phone and recorded myself talking.  I recited the paragraphs above that you just read.  Interesting, because at the time, I had no idea whether or not the story we would hear today would have anything to do with Aboriginal culture or storytelling.   Sitting here now writing this, I’m smiling, knowing what I have always known about this project.  It is bigger than me. It is not something I create – but something that seems to unfold. I love that this happens to me, and that I am there to experience it.  Today’s story is about Cynthia, a strong, beautiful Aboriginal woman who offers light and warmth to the Downtown Eastside.  With her permission, here is my interpretation of today’s events and her life story.

Around noon, I picked up my former student Anoop and headed to the Downtown Eastside.  Anoop asked how we would pick the one person to join us for lunch.   I smiled and explained that we don’t really pick – we let someone find us. I let Anoop know we would walk the streets and say hello to people and when we felt like it was the right person, we would ask them to join us for lunch.  We walked up and down Hastings Street for five to ten minutes.  We smiled in recognition to many – many we remember from Christmas’s past where they have written to loved ones with Project HELLO. ‘Steven King’ stood guarding his community garden.  Behind him, a sign attached to the fence read ‘drug free area’ yet attached to the sign is a pocket tray of clean needles.  Not a surprise – as images of contrast are everywhere on Hastings Street.  Fancy cars driving by people with their life’s belongings in shopping carts, yuppie condos built next to shelters, and so many speckles of beauty scattered amongst the dark streets.  As we passed the community garden we saw a barefoot woman, rocking back and forth, leaning on a shopping cart for support.  Her hair was orange and buzz cut, she appeared in pain but high on drugs, yet at the same time, intently focused on the last few pages of a book that she balanced on the shopping cart.  As I walked by I glanced down to see what she was reading.  Pride and Prejudice.  A long and difficult read for a neighborhood where many have only an elementary school education.   I smiled and walked on, unfortunately not knowing until later, that the woman was Cindy – the woman who we reconnected with her daughter in our first month of Beyond HELLO.  I did not recognize her with out her long beautiful hair.  However, knowing Cindy’s boisterous personality with wild, ever-changing emotions, I could not help but smile knowing her drastic change in hair style was likely a spontaneous decision.

As we approached the ‘mall’ which is the roughest block of Hastings (on the North Side between Columbia and Carrall) we passed a lady who I recognized from July.  In month one, this woman had walked passed David and I on the south side of Hastings.  She made a comment to us saying something like “be careful down here – there’s a full moon and they are crazy today!”  We smiled and explained a bit about our project.  She beamed with motherly pride as we shared our work.  We showed her a picture of Cindy and she agreed to take our phone number down in case she saw Cindy before us.  We didn’t have a spare pen so we went with her to the Pigeon Community Bank to use a notepad and pen.  In our talks she told us she used to be called Cindy as well.  Both Cindy and Cindy had gone through re-hab together years ago.  This Cindy had stayed clean.  Deciding that she was moving forward with her life – she left ‘Cindy’ behind – and became Cynthia.  Today as we ran into Cynthia, she recognized me but couldn’t quite remember where from. I reminded her about the help she had offered.  Again she beamed with pride for our work.   I asked if she knew if Cindy was still alive.  She then told me I had just passed her – as she was the one with the orange buzz cut.  She let me know Cindy is not doing well as her leg is very infected yet she now refuses to wear shoes as she walks Hastings.  A part of me wanted to run back and say hi, yet a part of me wanted to stay exactly where I was, intrigued by Cynthia’s strength and wanting to know more about her own journey and her resilience to battle through life’s most difficult hurdles.  I asked if she would like to share her story with us over lunch.  In a split second, she eagerly agreed and together Anoop, Cynthia and I walked down the street planning on dining at Save On Meats.

As we approached, we saw that Save On Meats was boarded up, closed for renovations.  However, next to it, a newer restaurant was open.  It is called ‘Lost and Found’ café.  The name alone seemed like a natural fit for our project, so we entered the café.  Inside we discovered a café celebrating world travel, art and philanthropy.  One wall displayed black and white portraits of the DTES amongst images of other hardships around the world.  The centre of the restaurant offered a variety of gifts, all backed by a big sign saying ‘Have a Heart’ – with proceeds from all items going to charitable organizations.    Cynthia, Anoop and I ordered lunch and found a table near the window.  A table where looking one direction showed images of Hastings Street, yet looking the other way offered the cozy sanctuary of a modern café.

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Our lunch arrived and Cynthia began to share her story.

Cynthia is a citizen of the To-quaht Band, one of the smallest First Nations, situated between Ucluelet and Port Alberni.  She grew up in Port Alberni on the reserve, with few restrictions.  As she recalls, you could drink and party at any age.  By grade six, she was drinking alcohol and stopped attending school.  Her mother would come in and out of her life, but spent most of her time in Seattle.  Her father worked in logging so he was not able to be around much.  Her mother’s parents served in a parental role raising Cynthia and her siblings.  Cynthia and her grandmother had a special bond. Even though there were eight children in the house, her grandmother would always wake up Cynthia in the middle of the night when she had a special story to share.  She would put on her kettle, make some tea and wake Cynthia saying “I don’t like sitting alone – let me tell you a story”.  Cynthia relished these moments and would awake from deep sleeps to hear her grandmother’s stories: stories her grandmother passed down from her own childhood. I smiled and told Cynthia a little about my grandparents and the special memories I have spending time with them.  I understand completely the bond she speaks of.  Cynthia also shared a story of a dream she had one night as a child – a dream that one day she would have her own flower shop.  Cynthia found comfort in the images of such a dream.

Cynthia’s grandfather on her father’s side was Chief in Ucluelet and therefore some of Cynthia’s childhood was marked with ceremonial tradition.  When she entered womanhood at age twelve her band celebrated that very day with a ‘Coming of Age’ party.  Her brothers dressed in wolf regalia and were instructed to be next to her – two on her left and two on her right.  They had to follow her for the day and sit together at the community hall.  Cynthia remembers this as a powerful experience yet also a challenging day for a twelve-year-old to endure when really she wanted to run and play.

Unfortunately these days did not last. After her grandpa on her mother’s side died, the ministry stepped in and found new homes for Cynthia and her siblings.  Some went to live with aunts, while Cynthia and one of her sisters were put into foster care in Cumberland BC.  They were placed with a Caucasian family who treated them well and had strong religious values.  After about four months of living with them, the family let the girls know they were going to make a drive to Port Alberni to return bottles at the bottle depot.  They asked the girls if they would like to accompany them and visit their relatives in Port Alberni.  The girls agreed and travelled to the reserve to visit.  Once arriving, her friend Danny’s family hid the girls so they never returned into foster care.  This left Cynthia experiencing a range of emotion.   Why did the ministry need to find her a new home in the first place? Why was it so easy to escape? Why didn’t she ever hear from her foster family again?  As Cynthia struggled to find answers, she found comfort in a relationship with her friend Danny.  When she turned 16, her father asked her and Danny to come for dinner.  During dinner he let her know it was time for her to get married.  She was married to Danny for six years, yet by age 22 she needed to escape the cycle of drinking and abuse.  She recalls one evening when Danny dragged her out of a community dance by pulling her hair.  Danny’s older brother stepped in and beat Danny threatening to hurt him again if he ever beat his wife.  Ironically Danny’s brother had also been beating his wife, however, when he saw his younger brother repeat the cycle it helped him stop his own violence.  At 22 Cynthia knew she needed to leave the reserve to feel safe.  Danny and her had two children but Cynthia was raising them on her own.  When Danny returned to town she let him know it was his turn and she needed to take care of herself.  She headed to East Vancouver, following the path of her thirteen year old sister.

When Cynthia arrived in East Vancouver (29 years ago) she played a motherly role to her younger sister who was actively using drugs.  Cynthia was determined to stay clean and managed to do so for two years.  One evening, Cynthia and her boyfriend went for drinks with another couple.  The other couple offered them T’s and R’s  (T’s and R’s are also referred to as poor man’s heroin.  The T stands for Talwin, a painkiller,  and the R for Ritalin, a stimulant.  When injected together they produce a high similar to the effects of cocaine mixed with heroin).  To Cynthia’s surprise her boyfriend said yes, letting her know for the first time that he had used in the past.  Wanting to know what her sister experienced, Cynthia decided to try her first hit.  The experience made her incredibly sick yet she recalls waking up the next day feeling like her mind had taken over her body and she wanted more.  Her sister prostituted to earn money to buy drugs and pay her rent.  Eventually her sister and the sister’s boyfriend told Cindy she needed to start contributing.  She needed to pay money too.   Her sister convinced her to turn her first trick and work the corner.  Craving the high of T’s and R’s Cynthia decided to work the corner once to get the money she needed.  Today, 29 years later Cynthia’s eyes watered as she tells us about her very first night working the street.  She had never felt so much shame.  Despite the money she earned she remembers bypassing the drugs and coming home to the bath washing herself and drowning herself in tears. Her need to feel clean surpassed her need for the drugs, yet a cycle had begun – a cycle hard to escape.  Like many girls working the streets, Cynthia eventually learned how to separate herself from her experiences.  She found a job cleaning for an elderly couple, shopping, cleaning and running errands.  At night she would work the streets.  One day the man she was cleaning for stopped her and said good morning.  When she replied pleasantly he said “oh – it’s nice to see you – I can distinctly tell the difference between the three of you – I can see in your eyes who you are today”.  Like many sexual abuse victims Cynthia began to take on different personalities as an escape from the pain.

At one point, Cynthia freed herself from the DTES and returned home to see her grandmother.  Cynthia was addicted and down to 80 pounds.  When she returned home, she slept for days withdrawing from the T’s and R’s.  Her grandmother wanted to know why she was sleeping so much, and then all of a sudden eating so much.  She told her grandmother everything. Her grandmother didn’t judge – instead it brought them even closer.  Cynthia would sit for hours at the big window in her grandma’s front room watching an eagle.  One day her grandmother sat beside her…

“Cindy I want you to make me a promise”

“What grandma?”

“No Cindy – I need you to promise first”

“What?”

“Promise me first and then I can tell you”

“Ok grandma – I promise”

“When I am gone, I don’t want you to ever come back here”

“Ok grandma I promise”

And so Cynthia left – and again returned to the DTES of Vancouver.  Torn between two lives – a Nation with family history yet plagued by alcoholism or her sister in Vancouver and the cycle of addiction.

For 29 years, Cynthia has survived the streets of the Downtown Eastside.  She has survived prostitution, heroin, cocaine, T’s and R’s.  Yet somehow she has overcome most her battles.  Five years ago she successfully completed re-hab. She chooses to stay in the neighbourhood she knows, perhaps because it is home, perhaps because she is drawn to stay. In Cynthia’s words “This street grabs ahold of you – the demon is the rock(cocaine)”.  Yet Cynthia has beat most of her battles and now feels compelled to help others.

Just last month, at age 55, Cynthia went back to school.  She attends 3 days a week learning basic computer skills and eventually Aboriginal law.  Each day she walks Hastings Street while reciting positive affirmations in her mind. She stops to give hugs to so many who need it.  Last year, as she walked the street of her neighbourhood a man from a church group stopped her to talk.  He could tell she was a part of the neighbourhood but that she was clean.  He asked her why she stayed.  Cynthia told him she didn’t know.  He then said “I can see why you are here – you have something important to do here.  People will listen to you. You have a story to tell.”   As she told us this story, Cynthia beamed with pride as she has believed this to be true since that day and now she is starting to see it happen.  Her poem “Goodbye Letter to Myself” was recently published in a local magazine.  She has been interviewed on TV and recently she took it upon herself to speak to a group of Aboriginal youth visiting the DTES.  I told her about my blog and asked if I could share her story.  With pride she smiled “you don’t have to ask me twice”.  As I told her more about Project HELLO I asked if she would ever be interested in joining me to present to youth or to educators.  I shared with her that I have a similar goal, as I want to share our story to help others understand the DTES and understand how students can make a difference.  I mentioned that I would be presenting the THESA conference in October and wondered if she would like to join me.  With a smile as wide as a child racing towards a finish line Cynthia whole heartedly agreed saying today was meant to happen.  She then asked me my astrological sign and smiled as if she already knew when she discovered we are both Leo.  As we finished our lunch, she sat in contentment and offered this “we met for a reason – there is no such things as a coincidence.”  I told her I couldn’t agree more.

I asked Cynthia two final questions.  First, I asked what she would like others to understand about the DTES.  Here’s what she had to share.  “It’s not what people think.  The people down here are real.  They may be messed up, but what they say is real and true.  Before you judge, try to walk a day in their shoes”.

I then asked Cynthia where she plans to be in five years.  Despite her promise to her grandma, Cynthia feels compelled to help her band.  First she will stay in Vancouver to finish course work and improve her employment skills and understanding of Aboriginal law.  In time she will make her way back to Port Alberni.  Her Nation, To-quaht has recently reached a treaty settlement with the government and they are beginning to develop their oceanfront land and create employment opportunities.  Cynthia will use the funds she receives from the treaty for retirement and to set up an RESP for her grandson.  Cynthia smiled with adult confidence and then with a second thought her eyes sparkled ands she said “or maybe I’ll follow through with my dream as a child and open up my flower shop”.

I can’t help but wonder if Cynthia’s flower shop already exists in a metaphorical way.  In Canada’s darkest neighbourhood she is light.  Her hugs, her stories and her courage to make a positive difference offer beauty and serenity just like a fresh cut bouquet of flowers.

All Too Familiar Streets: Day One of ‘Beyond HELLO’ – a deeper look into the stories of the Downtown Eastside

ImageFive years ago, my students and I began Project H.E.L.L.O. (Helping Everyone Locate Loved Ones).  Each year at Christmas and Mothers’ Day we head to the streets of the Downtown Eastside and invite the homeless to reach out and re-connect with friends or family who they may have lost touch with by sending one of our handmade greeting cards.  We then return to the schools and use the internet and phones to search for families.  To date, we have successfully connected over 300 homeless people with loved ones through cards, phone calls and a special face to face reunion.

The experience has been life changing, as we have gained so much more than we have given.  We have experienced many moments we will never forget, when the rough edges of the Eastside dissipate for a minute, and individuals search their soul to find just the right words to say to their long lost family.  We have listened to heartbreaking stories of addiction, abuse, family breakdown and mental health, yet we have also left feeling inspired by the resilience, hope and love that still exists.    We have cried with parents and children overwhelmed to hear from their loved one for the first time in years.   And other times, we have mailed cards, never truly knowing the impact.   What we do know, is that each person on the DTES has a story.  A story that explains their life and makes them truly unique.   A story that I believe is worth hearing.    For when we understand, we judge less.

Today was day one of  ‘Beyond HELLO’.  The idea was simple.  I would head to the DTES on a hot day and hand out water.  I would then invite one person to go for lunch at Save On Meats Diner, and over lunch, I would ask them some deeper questions to understand their life story.  With their permission, I would share their story and explain that our goal is to help the public understand the people of the DTES and treat them with the compassion and respect they deserve.   I invited David Jennings to join me.  David is a  student at the University of Alberta, and one of the students who began Project HELLO with me five years ago.  With two cases of water, an iPad with some thoughtful questions and some good intention we headed to the streets of the Downtown Eastside.

David and I are both familiar with the streets of the DTES as we have visited the neighbourhood dozens of times with Project HELLO, so it caught us both off guard as we approached with trepidation, not knowing what to expect.  How would we invite someone to lunch? How would we decide whom to choose?  What would we say?  We decided to load two bags full of water and walk the streets.  We decided that when the moment felt right for either of us, we would ask.   After two blocks, and brief encounters, we approached a lady who appeared in need.  She stood alone on the street, with ragged clothing, and unkempt hair.   When we offered her a bottle of water, she accepted but said what she really needed was money for a meal as she was starving.  We replied by saying we were just headed out for lunch and we would love for her to join us at Save on Meats if she was interested.  She thought for a second and then accepted our invitation.  Seeming somewhat ashamed to be with us, or to accept our offer, she walked ahead of us at a rapid pace.  I asked her her name, and she replied with one word – Cindy. We introduced ourselves and for the next few minutes we walked behind her, offering water to others as we made our way to the restaurant.  Both David and I had the same feeling.   We had selected the wrong person.  She appeared somewhat erratic on the streets, crossing through intersections diagonally and attempting to ignore or avoid any small talk with us.  The thought crossed my mind to offer her money to eat and find someone else to join us.

As we entered the alcove of the Save On Meats diner, things changed.  Overcome with emotion, Cindy experienced a mental breakdown.  She turned to us and frantically explained that she had no idea who we were or why we were there,  but that she was highly suicidal.  She feared for her life because of a drug debt and believed today was the day she would die of murder or suicide.  In a rage of emotion she frantically explained her suicidal ideation repeatedly telling us she had decided that today was the day.  She could not understand why we had chosen to help her.    David and I helped her with the door, and asked the waitress for a table for three.  We acknowledged the stress Cindy was under and motioned for her to come in and sit with us so we could try and help.  Again overcome with emotion, and with fear in her eyes, she flung herself into the booth and she began to open up… Here’s how it began…

Cindy admits to us that she is an addict.  She calls herself a junkie and knows her addiction has the best of her.  She is also HIV positive and now has full blown AIDS.  Her extremities are swollen and inflamed, and her right leg is incredibly infected.  Her body is in septic shock.  She knows she is nearing death and that she should be in the hospital.  She knows it is time for her leg to be amputated, but she is scared.  Hospitalized recently, she tells us how she yanked her tubes out and escaped back to the Downtown Eastside so she could feed her addiction.

With fear and tears in her eyes, she explains that she has cheated a friend to get her last hit of heroin.  She owes the dealer twenty dollars, and if she does not pay, she knows that either she or her friend will be physically beaten.  Looking in her eyes, I know the fear is real.  She fixates on suicide and the need to jump off a bridge.  She also shares thoughts of robbing the bank down the street as these two options appear to be her only escape.  She has never robbed a bank before, but knows it has been robbed by others so she is willing to try in an attempt to get the 20 and avoid putting her friend at risk.  Although I never give money out on the DTES, something tells me this is different, and that Cindy is telling us the truth.  I hear myself say to Cindy that things will be ok.  We will help take some of the stress off her, let her have a good meal, relax for a while and after lunch I will give her the 20 to pay her debt.  Cindy starts to relax, but is still overcome with fear of what may happen to her friend.  The waitress approaches and Cindy orders a coke, a strawberry shake, a burger and fries.  She then sheepishly asks if she could have the $20 right away, so she can go take care of the debt before lunch as she cannot relax knowing her friend is in jeopardy.  I hear myself agree and hand Cindy $20.    As David and I sit together in the booth, we quickly reflect, both wondering if she will return.  I ask David if he believes her story, and in complete agreement, he says, yes – you can see it in her eyes.

Five minutes later, Cindy returns.  A weight has been lifted off her shoulders and she cannot believe we have helped her.  With panic gone, we begin to see the real Cindy, and begin a great two hour conversation.  Cindy is almost speechless, wondering why we have chosen her to help.  David and I explain project HELLO and through conversation we realize that we have found family members of two of her friends.  We use David’s phone to show Cindy pictures of her friends Rosemary and Sandra, and tell her about the connections we have helped them make.  She is in disbelief and again thanks us sincerely.  She again explains that today was the day.  She had chosen today to die, and was standing on the street contemplating suicide.  Right before we approached her, her thoughts were shouting out that no one in this entire world cared about her.  Looking in our eyes with a calmness and softness that had not existed on the streets, she tells us that she feels a higher power is at work today as we are exactly what she needed.  Through tears of appreciation she tells us that we seem so real and so grounded and she can not believe we have picked her to join us for lunch.  We thank her for her words, and explain to her that this is our first day of ‘Beyond HELLO’ and she is the first person who seemed like they could use some company and a good meal.

As our food arrives, Cindy excuses herself to wash her hands. Feeling like the presentation is not appropriate for a suicidal woman, I remove the knife that is projecting from Cindy’s burger.  She returns with wet hands and embraces her burger and milkshake with childlike wonder.  Although she has lived across the street for twenty years, this is the first time she has been in the restaurant, and the first time in years that she has ordered from a menu.  Despite her appearance the wait staff treat her with respect and it seems like Cindy is no different than anyone else in the restaurant.

Through lunch I explain to Cindy how her story can inspire others.  I acknowledge the heart and spirit that we can see and the life she has within her.  Together we agree that today is not her day to die.  I too don’t know why she stood out to us on the streets, but we all recognize that a reason exists for us to come together. I invite her to tell us her story and ask permission to share it so others can understand the people of the DTES and the circumstances of their lives.  She looks at us with pride and disbelief, moved by the glimmer of hope that her story could make a difference to others.  She is honoured and willing to share….

Cindy moved to the DTES at the age of 16.  She was born to a middle class family in Oshawa, Ontario.  Her mom has a hard working woman who was very health conscious.  Cindy stops and says to me that I remind her of her mom.  I laugh and tell her that I’m in the middle of eating French fries so I can’t be a health nut.  She laughs too and tells me her mom likes French fries too but would only allow herself to have one.  As I continue to eat my fries she continues.  She does not give us details but alleges to an abusive step father as one of the reasons for the move. Before moving to BC she gave birth to her daughter who she gave up for adoption as she did not have any means to provide for her.   Cindy mentions that she has always wanted to find her daughter but she wants to clean herself up first.  She has thought of reaching out to an agency to help but wants to be drug free to make her daughter proud.  Unfortunately she has been in and out of rehabilitation programs, and although she has gotten herself clean twice over the past decade, the lure of the drugs in the neighbourhood always draws her back. In the early days she worked the streets of Vancouver, caught in a vicious cycle of prostitution and addiction.    She speaks of an organization from twenty years ago called the Teen Challenge that really reached out and connected with her.  She says that we remind her of the people who helped her then as she feels so  comfortable opening up with us.

She also speaks of her son who she gave birth to in 1991 with her boyfriend who still lives in the DTES as well.  She lost guardianship of her son and she believes he is now in Montreal.  She spells his name for us and I ask David to check Facebook.  Within minutes, we have her son’s Facebook profile on David’s phone, with a matching name and birthday.  For the first time in over 20 years, Cindy is looking at her son’s face.  She is overcome with joy and holds the phone cheek to cheek asking us if we can see a resemblance.  She explains that her son’s father tried to hurt her recently by yelling out his balcony at her saying their son was in jail for sexual assault.  She says she hates to think her son would be capable of that and she wonders if it’s the father’s way of trying to hurt her.  David and I decide not to tell her that the Facebook post on his page from a friend says ‘Are you still in jail?’

Cindy tells us about her living conditions in her government funded building.  Despite her need for cleanliness, she cannot help but feel the walls are closing in as bugs swarm her tiny apartment entering through the ventilation system.  The smell of chemical fumes is overwhelming.  The hallways have blood stains and splatters on the walls and door handles.  Broken needles are prevalent and her foot is extremely infected from the tip of a needle that is lodged within her foot.  Her leg is red and purple, three times the size it should be and covered in a rash up to her knee.  She walks with a limp because of the pain.    She tells us about another tenant who has beaten her regularly.  She also speaks of an ex boyfriend who lived with her for a while.  Four years ago they too had a child together, another girl,  but the baby was taken into ministry care.  When she speaks of her children you can see the shame she feels yet the eternal love of a mother who never stops worrying about her kids is also evident.   She knows she does not have long to live but wishes she could let them know how much she loves them.  David and I take down the correct spelling and details around each of her three children and promise to share her story and send love if we can find them.

As we finish lunch, Cindy is again in tears.  Her vocabulary and world knowledge is impressive as she explains that her actions as an addict do not align with her moral fibre.  She knows she has hurt people to feed her addiction and she is so ashamed as she knows that underneath she is a  good strong person.  She also knows that she does not have long to live.  She knows her doctor wants her to be at St. Pauls Hospital in the AIDS ward.  She knows she will die there.  When she talks about her recent run from the hospital she explains she was not mentally ready.  She knows her time is almost up but she wants to be at peace with herself and heal some wounds with others.  She talks abut whether or not this is a selfish pursuit.  She explains that she often thinks of people in Auschwitz who died in Concentration Camps.  If they were not given time to mentally prepare for death, why should she be afforded such a luxury?  She wrestles with this though but wants to find peace before she dies.

As the waitress brings us the bill, Cindy seems at peace.  She asks to use the washroom and returns completely cleaned up.  Her hair is wet from quick wash and is now tied in a pony tail off her face.  She has cleaned her face and hands and mentions she has even washed her feet in the sink.  With a new lightness of spirit, she tells us she no longer feels alone, and she believes she is ready to go to the hospital.  I ask if she would like an ambulance or if she would like a ride to St. Paul’s.   Cindy then pauses, and asks if she can ask us for one final request.  We invite her to share.

“Can we please take a detour on the way to the hospital.  Can we go for a drive so I can see the ocean one more time before I die?”

“Yes – I think that’s a great idea.  How about we drive through Stanley Park first?”

“Oh- can we stop for a minute so I can put my feet in the ocean? And could you please take my picture there and share it with my family?”

“Yes.  I think that’s a wonderful idea.  I think you are ready to do that”.

As I pay the bill, Cindy excuses herself for a smoke break outside.  We join her minutes later and point to my car two blocks away along Hastings, an all too familiar street for Cindy.

We approach my car and let Cindy know she can have the front seat.  She mentions her stomach is doing flips.  Perhaps it’s the nerves, perhaps it’s the milkshake, coke, fries and burger that are hard on her system that usually gets by with so much less.  We stand outside my car and the sights, smells and passerby’s of Hastings surround us.   Drawn by her addiction, Cindy looks at me with one hand on the car door and asks if she can please have $20 for one more hit  or some T3’s to stop the pain.  I say no.  Cindy then asks for $10. Then $7 and then $5.  She needs her drugs before she leaves so she can self administer them while at the hospital.  I look her in the eyes telling her I will not give her money to feed the addiction.  The hospital staff have the medication she needs.  Caught in turmoil, she is paralyzed. I tell her I can take her to the ocean, I can take her to the hospital but I will not give her money.  Our eyes meet and we both feel the pain, knowing that the Cindy we got to know has surrendered to the addiction once again.  Her need for just one more hit is stronger than her willpower to escape.  I hear myself say “Cindy,  I think it’s time we should go.” And I know by looking at her that she feels the shame of another broken relationship.   David and I get in the car.  We sit and wait for a minute in case she can find the strength.   Knowing she is not ready, I drive away slowly, with the image in my rearview mirror of Cindy hunched over the parking meter, forever burned in my mind.

Tonight, after returning home, I have located Cindy’s mom and her daughter who she gave up for adoption.  Through Facebook we have located pictures of her mom, son and daughter.  Her daughter is a spitting image of Cindy yet they have never met.    I have sent messages to the mother and daughter, explaining ‘Beyond HELLO’ asking them to contact me about Cindy.  At the very least, I can provide Cindy with pictures of her family.  Perhaps her wish will come true and she can connect with family before she dies.  Late this evening, I feel a small miracle occurred.  After noticing that her daughter has not been active on Facebook for over six months, I decided to click on her ‘Friends’ tab with the intention of picking a random stranger to help me connect.  I then noticed the (1 mutual friend) notation under one of her friend’s photos.  By a strange coincidence, her daughter is friends with a man in Ontario who is friends with one of my ex-students.  This same student actually approached me last year about spreading the word of Project HELLO  in Ontario.  We have now connected and he too hopes that the mutual friend can reach Cindy’s daughter for us.   I do not know what will come of today’s lunch, but I am grateful to Cindy for having the courage to share her story and her willingness to share with the world.  There is good reason to go Beyond HELLO. 

Kids These Days

It’s Sunday morning, the sun is shining, I just finished a run with a friend, I have Starbucks in hand and my kids are off on a weekend adventure with their grandparents so one would think that my head would be full of positive thoughts.  For the most part it is, yet there is this nagging topic I feel compelled to write about.  So, unlike most of my blog posts, this one may come across as more of a rant.

So – here’s what’s on my mind…  I have this little pet peeve, and I just can’t shake it.  Like my otherwise calm neighbour who becomes a different person when he’s on the road with ‘bad drivers’, I find I can feel my blood boil when a certain expression arises.  There is nothing that frustrates me more than the moment when you are mid conversation with other adults and someone says “Kids these days,” assuming everyone will nod in agreement supporting the notion that society is doomed with today’s youth.

To be fair, I understand why the general population may have a poor impression of youth.  I get it. Bad news sells and it is far more likely that criminal activity or social disruption will dominate the headlines.  This notion isn’t true just for teens, it’s true for all ages and an unfortunate reality of the way we allow media to be portrayed.  Believe me, if a newspaper or TV network decided to cover only positive news stories, or the triumph and heroes that emerge with each disaster I would be the first to subscribe.

I also get that I often find myself in conversation with my neighbours, who are truly wonderful people, but whose careers offer a different perspective.  I have re-named our street emergency row as our street would vacate quickly if our city had a crisis as each house seems to have either a fireman, police officer, paramedic or hazmat team member.  With these industries responding to crises, I understand that they are not able to get an accurate perception of average kids or teens.

I understand that my view is also limited in scope as I have not researched all trends in youth behaviour, however I can speak confidently about the type of kids I get to work with on a regular basis.  As a vice principal, part of my job includes the responsibility of student discipline. Yet, unlike the movies would suggest, discipline does not dominate the day.  Why?  Two reasons really.  First of all, we don’t have many kids misbehaving.  Second, when we do, we see it as an opportunity for the student to learn from the situation, repair relationships and leave the situation strengthened so they are unlikely to find themselves in the same situation again.  Our schools are not plagued by bad kids.  We have great kids, who just like adults make some mistakes.  More often than not, it is hurt kids who hurt other kids.  Getting to the root of what is driving their behaviour and helping them heal allows our kids to learn from their mistakes and move forward.

So, if my day is not spent dealing with rowdy teenagers reeking havoc, then what are our teens really like?  This year, I worked the first half of the school year at Dr. Charles Best in Coquitlam, and the second half of the year at Thomas Haney in Maple Ridge.  In June I was fortunate to be part of two graduation ceremonies recognizing the accomplishments of the amazing kids leaving school ready to embrace the world.

When I look at our graduates, here is what I see:  They are fun, they are polite, they are intelligent, they are curious and they embrace the world beyond high school with a sense of curiosity and composure unlike when I was in school.  Unlike the past, they understand that they will likely have multiple career paths and the job they make end up in may not even exist today.  They are technologically savvy, the understand that the questions are just as important as the answers, and they embrace that learning is a lifelong process, rather than a rite of passage they have now completed.  They love their friends, family and community.  They balance the challenges of social media and live with both the communication and connection benefits that it brings, but also the exposure and immediacy that it offers.  When I think back to my own teenage years I can only imagine how different things would have been if every one of my friends had a phone in their pocket with a built in camera and access to the internet.  Let’s just say I’m happy my close friends knew some things about me that we didn’t capture on film and share with the world! I’m sure most adults can relate!

If we look to statistics, the Mcleary Foundation confirms that youth today are far less likely to smoke than youth a decade ago, 84% are in good or excellent health, drug use is not on the rise, and pregnancy rates are stable at less than 2%.  Major injuries have declined and most injuries that occur happen during sports.  Statistics Canada confirms that crime rates continue to decline across Canada, reaching a new low matching levels not seen since 1972. BC has the second lowest youth crime rate in the country with rates falling since 1991.  A study conducted by the BC Ministry and Representative for Children and Youth concludes less than 2% of children regularly present intensive behaviour challenges in schools.  However, children who have been abused become twice as likely to commit crimes, again confirming the notion that kids who  act out may be doing so based on their own hurt.  When our schools and families teach social emotional learning as well as curriculum we can help all students flourish.  We truly have great kids.

Kids today have a sense of responsibility far greater in scope than when I graduated.   They are global citizens, care deeply about recycling, volunteering, taking care of the environment and giving back to the less fortunate.  The kids I worked with this year spent time giving back at local elementary schools, homeless shelters, seniors homes, community events, sporting events and hospitals.  Many have helped raise funds through organizations such as Me to We helping impoverished nations, and some have even travelled to developing countries to help build schools and improve the access to clean water.  They smile, use manners and open doors for people.

As an example of what kids are really like, I’ve included links to two student blogs.

Selin Jessa, a graduate from Dr. Charles Best, is making headway around the world with her scientific research and commitment to leaving the world in an even better place than she found it.  Her blog ‘Thinking Out Loud’ gives a glimpse at her impressive journey.

Miranda Tymoschuk, a grade 11 student at Thomas Haney has overcome more adversity than any child should have to face, yet she uses it as motivation to improve conditions for others.  Please click here to see her story and her current fundraising efforts. http://ilaughlovedream.blogspot.ca

While these two students are the outliers with phenomenal accomplishments, they are not alone.  During graduation ceremonies, the grads from Dr. Charles Best and Thomas Haney were recognized for their accomplishments in academics, athletics, the arts, and in service, earning an impressive scholarship total of over one million dollars.

I am humbled to work with today’s youth as I get to learn from them as much as they learn from us.  Our kids are great.  Canada continues to be ranked as one of the top three education systems in the world, and we continue to focus on educating both the mind and the heart.   Our schools, our parents, and our communities are doing a great job. Unfortunately, that’s the news that doesn’t always make the headlines.  However, this is the story we should be telling.   Next time you are mid-conversation and someone mutters the expression “Kids these days,” please do me a favour, and  respond by saying, “Yes, they are pretty amazing aren’t they!”

OK – enough of my rant.  I’m off to enjoy this amazing sunny Sunday.

The Purpose of Education

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”  
Aristotle
 happiness36
Sometimes when we talk about education we lose scope of what matters.  Political campaigns and media headlines emphasize numbers: school closures, class sizes, rising costs and grad rates.  Numbers give us quick answers, and an easy way to compare schools to one another. While math was definitely my favourite subject growing up, I’m not a fan of numbers when it comes to measuring schools.  Of course class sizes, dollars spent and high marks are important, but these pieces of data pale in comparison to what really matters in education.
Let’s take your own school experience as an example.  Take a second to think back to your school days.   Do you recall the number of students in each course, the cost of your annual school fees or the grade point average of your graduating class?  I’m suspecting those are hard facts to remember.  If this is the case, why do we so often turn to quantitative measures when we set school goals or measure a school’s performance?  Quantitative data is easy to measure but I question whether it should be the goal.  When we focus on what really matters in life, we create environments where kids feel safe, supported, connected, inspired, and excited to learn.
What happens if I change the questions about your education.  This time,  what if I ask you to  tell me the name of your favourite teacher, the best class you ever took or the connections you made with others.  I bet these questions are much easier to answer.  When I look back I remember my grade 10 science teacher Mr. Sandy Hill.  Our class always looked forward to the weeks when science would fall in the last block on Friday, as those blocks were dedicated to lessons in life.  He taught us that ‘hallway’ was the most important subject, and used the power of story to teach us valuable lessons about friendship, compassion, and life in general.  In grade 12,  I met my favourite teacher of all, Mr. Rich Chambers.  And here’s the irony – I hated the subject he taught.  Yet I signed up for Comparative Civilizations so I could hear his stories, and experience what it was like to be in his class.   Every morning he greeted each of us at the door with a handshake.  He brought humour and energy to every class.  He had high expectations and he cared deeply about each and every student.  Attendance wasn’t something he had to worry about as a teacher as his class was so exciting that no one wanted to miss it.
Personally, I will never forget a particular April morning in my grade 12 year.  I had a terrible fight with my parents and I had been crying most the night.  When I woke up my eyes were puffy so I wore my sunglasses to school.  Mr. Chambers was at the door as usual, waiting to greet each student.  As he shook my hand he exclaimed “hey – nice shades!”.  I lifted my glasses so he could see my swollen eyes.  He gave me a quick pat on the shoulder and told me we would chat soon.  What happened next was perhaps the best ‘teacher education’ I have received.  He did not single me out or draw any attention to my bad day.  Instead, he started the class by saying today was the day we were going to have mini conferences with him in the hall to talk about our progress.  He put a video on relating to the curriculum and began to call each student out for individual meetings.  After two or three students, it was my turn, and he was able to discreetly talk to me about what was going on in my life outside school.  I will never forget that moment where he seamlessly transitioned his lesson to discreetly help me though a difficult time.  Teachers like Sandy Hill and Rich Chambers truly understand that the most valuable lessons we learn in school are lessons in life.
 Now that I’m a parent I think about what I want for my own children.  Here’s what I want their school experience to be like:
  • I want them to develop a love for learning  where childlike wonder develops into an inquisitive nature.  Where they are just as excited to raise their hand in grade 12 as they are in kindergarten.
  • I want them to understand how they learn so they can continue to apply their skills to new content throughout life.
  • I want them to become socially responsible citizens who care deeply about others and take the time to know people’s stories.
  • I want them to have rich experiences in and out of the classroom where they connect with community, explore a vast array of topics, and start to discover their own passions.
  • I want them to play.  I want them to feel safe enough to take risks and embrace their creative spirit.
  • I want them to find balance with skills in technological literacy for a  fast paced world yet equal skill in self reflection, mindfulness and comfort in silence.
  • I want them to be loved, appreciated and understood.  I want them to experience synergy and contagious energy that develops when they truly connect with others.
  • And more than anything I want them to always be happy.  I want them to understand that happiness does not come from getting what they want, but rather from giving to others, expressing gratitude, being active and reflecting on who they are becoming.
  • I want them to learn with passionate educators who believe in educating the mind as well as the heart.  This video, which was beautifully created for the Heart Mind 2013 Conference captures this perfectly.   http://www.educatingtheheart.org
As an educator, I want this for my children and for your children.  Do I also want them to get good grades?   Of course I do.  I’d just rather we focus on what matters most.  When we create learning environments where our children can thrive, the numbers will become a by-product of more meaningful and significant goals.