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
Your seatbelt is fastened, the ride is still, and you sit with anticipation. There is no turning back, and your mind races with a mix of anxiety and excitement. This frozen moment in time congeals calm and chaos. From a still frame shot, it’s hard to tell if the roller-coaster ride has just ended, or if it’s just about to begin, as the start gate and stop gate appear no different. To you, the rider, these two moments in time, are of stark comparison.
Just over a year ago, I sat at the start gate, and prepared for an incredible roller coaster ride: A year at Thomas Haney Secondary, a self directed high school. I thought I was ready. I thought I had the courage, the curiosity, and the skill set to help lead in this high school environment. I was excited for the new challenge. But, just like the over zealous child, the first couple of twists and turns left me wide eyed and totally out of my comfort zone. I soon realized most of what I knew about education was – well – wrong – or at least not applicable.
My first couple of weeks at Thomas Haney I had more questions than answers. Moving from a semestered high school to a linear self directed high school was a big adjustment. Many of the traditional norms that I was accustomed to seemed to disappear: fully scheduled classes, movement dictated by bells, teacher directed instruction, departmentalized schools, before and after school meetings, organized chaos. It was all gone. And at first – that seemed wrong. Certainly school, for the sake of being school, must conform to these basic assumptions. I looked for meetings – meetings that did not exist. I wondered how staff and students could collaborate and learn without structure… I didn’t see what I was looking for. The students seemed relaxed, the teachers appeared stress free, the days seemed to end earlier, the demands diminished. Something must be wrong. This is not how schools usually feel. Everything I knew failed me, and just like the child at the peak of the first hill, I began to wonder if I had made the right decision.
Then, a crazy thing happened. I fell in love with the ride. Like a breathtaking view from the coaster peak, I too had a new view: a new view on eduction. A view you can only see when you ride the coaster and dare to re-imagine school as we know it. I realized I had been viewing the school from a traditional lens, looking for what was different. My intention dictated what I saw. When I found the courage to open my eyes and enjoy the ride, I found the magic: the magic of Thomas Haney.
From traditional measures often used to assess schools, our school does well. Our students perform above provincial averages on exams, our graduation rates are in the high 90’s and our students win their fair share of awards and scholarships. However, that’s not the magic. The magic is not in where we arrive but how we get there. Before I explain the magic of our school let me first give a quick description of how it works.
In our grade 8-12 school every student is part of a teacher advisory (TA) program that meets twice a day. Each teacher has a multi-grade TA of approximately 23 students. These TA’s become like families. Siblings are placed in the same TA, and each student gets to work with the same TA teacher for five years. On Monday mornings, they set weekly goals together and each day check in on learning plans and achievement. The TA is also the home away from home offering a safe environment, sense of community and solid friendships.
We encourage students to BYOD (Bring your own device), and our teachers offer a blended learning model with face to face instruction blended with online resources. Our grade 8’s are fully scheduled for 5 blocks a day, Monday to Friday, with the only exception being Monday where the entire school participates in Y Block – a one hour tutorial of sorts where every teacher is available and students choose where to learn. By grade 9, students have been introduced to the self directed learning principles and they are handed one third of their time to choose where, when and what they work on. By grade 10, two thirds of their time becomes self directed and one third of their time is scheduled. To translate, for a student with 8 classes, each class is scheduled for one hour a week and that’s it. For the other 17 hours a week students align their passions with the learning outcomes and decide how to demonstrate their learning. They choose to work in open spaces called great halls where teachers are available to support learning. This flexibility also allows students to work from home, work part time jobs, participate in day time commitments for sports and activities, take time to travel, or choose to work ahead. In fact, many of our grade 8 students, choose to complete math 8 and 9 in one year by working ahead.
Beyond the flexibility described, the magic emerges in so many ways:
Collaboration: Our teachers do not use the staff room. They could if they wanted to but their normal workspace lends itself to creativity, collaboration and friendship. Instead of using offices, one big open space called the teacher prep area allows teachers of all disciplines to sit side by side. For example, it’s not uncommon to have teachers from Drama, English, Math and Science all within ten feet of each other. Since teachers also have self directed schedules, they are only scheduled in traditional classrooms for 7 hours / week (grade 10-12). During the other 14 hours of scheduled time, they teach with other teachers in great hall spaces helping students of all grades. The meetings I was originally looking for do not need to exist as learning happens naturally as teachers continually collaborate, share ideas, and encourage each other to try new things. Our teachers are learners too.
Events: In some schools, it’s difficult to coordinate school wide events. Teachers worry about scheduling, missed class time, set up and take down, etc. With our flexible schedule, we don’t instruct students or teachers to attend. Instead, when a cool event is happening such as the Haiku death match or Annual Egg drop we advertise in our daily announcements and invite anyone to attend. (Imagine the activity board at an all inclusive resort). The magic happens and hundreds of students and teachers show up on their own and learn together.
Inquiry: Our school encourages students to discover and follow their passions. In grade 8 our teachers literally throw away the curriculum for one month and hand over all control inviting students to develop their own question of inquiry. They guide them through the inquiry process facilitating their learning. One month later magic happens: grade 8’s showcase what they have accomplished – mastering the violin, developing online video games, designing clothing, recording their own records, creating apps for smart phones etc. And long after the assessment is over most of them continue to explore their topics of interest.
Working smarter not harder: Once our students link learning with their passions, they guide their learning process. Soon they figure out ways that one project can meet the learning outcomes of a variety of courses. It is not uncommon for students to find cross curricular connections where one project can meet the outcomes for 4 courses. For example, a grade 12 student recently explored her love for chocolate while earning credit for social justice (fair trade), foods (making chocolate), English (essay) and marketing (marketing plan).
Real life, Real learning: our students have the flexility in their day to participate in real life projects, partnering with our local seniors home, volunteering in the community, helping the homeless reconnect with family, creating campaigns such as ‘Make BC Smile’ and most recently – interviewing for the new SD42 Superintendent.
Test Centre: We believe testing should take place after learning has occurred, rather than on a set date and time determined by the teacher. When a student is ready to take a test, they have a conversation with their teacher to discuss their learning. If both parties feel the student is ready, they issue a test slip. The student then decides when to go to the test centre to write. Have a dance recital Tuesday night and won’t have time to review? No problem – choose the date that is best instead.
Calm, safe environment: Our kids are not stressed compared to other schools. The flexible model and cross grade learning eliminates conflict and cliques. Our school board called mid-year to find out why we were not forwarding suspension letters. The answer was simple – because we had not had any. Our teachers have time to collaborate, plan great fieldtrips, think outside the box and be creative. The school culture celebrates learning and innovation and students and teachers are safe to take risks. When someone has a new idea, the answer is often ‘Why not?’. Together we try new things, learn together and have fun doing so. It’s hard to find a student or staff member that does not LOVE our school.
Like the child who dares to try his first roller coaster, I have dared to see education re-imagined. For me, the ride is about to end, as I will be working at a new school next year. From a still frame shot, all will be the same when the coaster stops, yet, like the first time rider, I am not the same as I have leaned into fear, let go of control, and lived the experience. As I step away I will do so with a smile wide, knowing the secret of what education in the future may look like if we dare to disrupt the status quo. Although I wish the it had been longer, I am glad I had the chance to take the ride and discover the magic of self directed learning: the magic of Thomas Haney.
Note: We invite the world to DisruptED 2014, hosted by Thomas Haney Secondary & the Canadian Coalition of Self Directed Learning. A conference recognizing the beauty that can occur when we dare to be different and shake up education.
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 http://www.BeyondHELLO.org 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. http://www.eventbrite.ca/e/disrupted-vancouver-2014-tickets-4458812428?aff=eivtefrnd
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.
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 🙂
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 BeyondHELLO.org 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 www.beyondhello.org 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.
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!
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.
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.
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”
“No Cindy – I need you to promise first”
“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.