November 8th, 2012
Good Morning Students and Staff,
On November 11th, citizens across this nation will stop what they are doing and take a moment to pause and remember. We too, would like to take an opportunity to gather together and engage in an act of remembrance, but as November 11th falls on Sunday, we have decided to gather this morning to stop, be silent and remember.
Of course, it is our great fortune as a nation that you, as children who are so far removed from our nation’s large-scale involvement in war in the twentieth century, have no true memories of fallen soldiers. If I had been a principal in the 1920s or the 1950s and were to ask how many of you remember someone who had fallen in battle, practically every child would raise their hand.
Thus, for you, it is especially important that you listen to the words of those who have lived close to the reality of war and who can guide us in the act of remembrance. Today is a day for you to reflect on both the sacrifice made by men and women who have taken great risks, and to reflect on Canada’s role in the world. You must learn of war and of those who have acted on behalf of our nation in the act of war if you are to empathize with those who have suffered loss on your behalf and if you are to consider, as participating citizens, what role Canada will take in the future.
We often talk in this school of risk takers. Soldiers are often called upon to risk everything. They leave their families and put themselves in harm’s way on a daily basis.
We are privileged this morning to be joined by one such soldier, Lieutenant Carrie Pluck. Lieutenant Pluck heralds from Windsor where her first brush with the military was through, of all things, music, as she played in the military band. She has had a career in assisting the military in technological support, and spent time in 2002 in the Golan Heights on a United Nations peace-keeping mission there.
Lieutenant Pluck will speak to you about that risk taking aspect of the soldier’s life, and the courage that must accompany it.
Please join me in welcoming Lieutenant Pluck to The York School.
June 15th, 2012
Delivered by David Hamilton, Principal of the Upper School
June 14th, 2012
Now, before we launch into our achievements, I should let you know that I have been given an assignment. Yes, many weeks ago, when I was young and the buds still hung on their branches, Mr. Jones came to me with an assignment.
As we two lounged on a lime green couch, surrounded by the silence of white-washed walls, he turned to me and said – for he often spoke first:
“David, I have an assignment for you to do”
And of course I asked:
“When is it due”
“At the closing”, he replied.
And then, as though the dams had burst, a hundred questions flowed down from the top of my cranium making their way into the frontal lobes, where I was able to throw out the anxious questions such as: would there be late marks? would I receive a rubric ahead of time? and what criteria would I be assessed on? – and I then focused on the most important question – what exactly is my assignment?
And he smiled, as Mr. Jones is want to smile, that Cheshire smile that tells me he enjoys the very thought he holds there in suspension betwixt his ears.
“I want you to provide a history of the previous year”
What!, I gasped, a complete history of the world. The lives of 7 billion inhabitants of the earth and 195 countries coursed through my mind – sadly, too quickly for me to write down any details.
“Yes, tell us about what happened in the Upper School” he added.
Whew! Now that was a homework assignment I could relate to. It put me, the principal, at the centre of my learning.
I sprang from the couch and rushed to find my sources and compile my bibliography.
But wait. I was missing one thing. What was my guiding question to be?
I brainstormed. The activity in my brain was electrifying. How about:
“To what extent was the Upper School an absolute monarchy? Discuss.”
“Analyse the causes of the grad prank and hypothesize as to why the prank did not lead to a school-wide revolt.”
These questions were far too high in the taxonomy of thinking for me to handle, so I settled on a much simpler question: “What exactly did we do this year?”
Like any good York School student I did my research, I used authoritative sources, I used a Google doc, I organized my notes, and I came up with the following findings:
I found that:
We raced Pinewood derby cars, engineered robots, fashioned lanterns for charity, constructed sandwiches, and danced at a Masquerade Ball.
We slept in winter tents, hunted gargoyles, mushed dogs, busted myths, swung from high ropes, and pretended to be John A. MacDonald, Stephen Lewis, Bono, Romeo and Juliet, Benedict and Beatrice, the countries of Europe and the President of Swaziland.
We raced around this amazing city, descended into Brick Works, climbed mountains in British Columbia, saw the sun rise in Newfoundland, painted sunsets in Killarney, made friends in Quebec, debated in Australia, watched lions devour their prey in Tanzania, played Kabaddi in India, made music in England and France, and took the trip of a lifetime.
We dropped eggs, dissected frogs, embalmed chickens, captured flags, investigated crime scenes, battled artists, acted in the park, and designed and built chairs that were environmentally friendly and physically stable.
We busked on the street, painted graffiti on walls, wrote for the Stand, wielded a Viking burial sword and proved that we are more talented than some other nearby independent schools.
We put on TEDx for IB, put out PSAs, formed a GSA, watched YorkTV, followed DP and MYP, prepared for SATs, and even made an appearance on the CBC.
We raced for dignity, ran for Terry, gathered dresses for proms, collected food for the hungry, wrestled one another for United Way, washed cars for India, made art for aids, ran obstacles for Ooch, and baked lots and lots of yummy treats.
We got to know Donald MacDonald, Carolyn Bennett, Monsieur Lacharite, Craig and Mark Kielberger, the men of Colgate, the Good Person of Schezchuan, a bad person in Macbeth, and an interesting person in Picasso.
We won big at Kiwanis, in Mandarin, debating, public speaking, volleyball, soccer, staff-student basketball games, and ultimately, Ultimate.
So, that constitutes my findings. Now you ask, “But Mr. Hamilton, you have to have a thesis; you have to do some analysis and come up with a conclusion. How else will you get marks for Thinking and Inquiry”
Okay, then… here is my analysis:
Some say “You are what you eat”. I think that is ridiculous, none of you look anything like our cafeteria food. But I think I can say “You are what you do.” Because what you are to the world, is what you do in the world. Above all, the world will remember your actions.
So if you are what you do, and you did all of that, I can conclude that you must be pretty amazing. In fact, I think I have proved that you are:
caring, principled, balanced, open-minded, knowledgeable, and reflective
You must be inquirers, thinkers, Risk takers, and communicators.
And as you have all of those attributes, you are among the best IB students in the world.
And even if my assignment doesn’t get me an IB 7, I know that all of you deserve an IB 7.
I want to congratulate you and thank you for an incredible year. I am proud of all of your accomplishments.
And where there are accomplishments, there must be awards.
…So let the awards begin
March 5th, 2012
Let me begin by letting you know that Mr. Jones asked me to say how much he wanted to be here this morning. In addition to having sound advice about life, Mr. Jones is a great lover of sport – witness his superior performance during the staff-student basketball game – and he wanted to be here to recognize all the athletes that have made their mark over the winter season.
Sports have been on my mind recently. On the night before the Academy Awards, I happened to watch Moneyball, a movie that tells a true story about professional baseball. The movie focuses on the role of the general manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, who, though himself not successful as a professional ball player, managed to make a success of the Oakland A’s. The secret to Billy Beane’s success was summed up in the words of Peter Brand, his assistant: “Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players. Your goal should be to buy wins. In order to buy wins, you need to buy runs.” Peter Brand was all about numbers. Players were only important by virtue of the numbers they produced – the times they got on base being one of the most important.
We, at The York School, are not about numbers. You are not a number to me, and you are not a number to the coaches that coach you. We have a different philosophy when it comes to sports. Wins are nice, but they don’t come first. At The York School, you come first.
You are the reason we field teams. You are the reason that coaches get up at 6:00 a.m. for a 7:00 a.m. practice, and don’t get home until the bus rolls in from Rosseau Lake in the late evening. You are the reason that so many of your faithful parents take time from work to sit in the stands and cheer you on. You are the reason that I stop what I am doing and come and watch you play. We care about you. Whether or not you win more games than other teams, in our hearts, you will always be first.
So, in addition to congratulating you for all your efforts during this winter season, let me take this opportunity to thank all of those people who have put you first. Thank you to Mr. Feeney, our Athletic Director. Thank you to all of the coaches, who have put their heart and soul into making the game a winning experience, if not always an experience of winning. And thank you to all of the parents, your most ardent fans. And thank you to Matt, Alyssa, Russell and Hanna, who have guided us to a successful conclusion of this athletic assembly.
As I have suggested, sports cannot always be about winning. Regrettably, the staff basketball team was reminded of this fact in the most recent staff-student basketball game. And although I know that the staff basketball team is first in all of your hearts, we would like an opportunity to prove that we are also first on the court. So, I hereby challenge Russell Hanson, Hanna Grover and any members of the varsity basketball and volleyball teams to show their faces during this year’s Oochathon, for both a basketball and volleyball match. I figure we ought to win at least one of them!
February 2nd, 2012
The sun had long since dipped below the horizon on Sunday evening when my son, hunched over a sprawl of binders and soundly beat up grade 9 textbooks, turned and asked that question that I had always imagined my students putting to their parents.
“What should I write my English essay on?” my son queried.
What indeed? A host of ridiculous titles raced across the fictitious high definition screen of my cranium: “What are the principal causes of some high school teachers’ penchant for wide open assignments?” was surely one of them.
“Why don’t you write about something you are passionate about – say, the need for high school Latin?”
Believe it or not, my son has been convinced by his Classicist mother that the Western Empire is declining at the rate of retiring Latin teachers. But to no avail. He actually had his own idea.
“I think I’d like to write about how English classes should be about studying the structure of novels and not merely talking about what is going on in the novel,” he offered. I smiled. Like my elder son, and perhaps even like his father at that age, this one had an instinct for the teacher’s jugular.
“So what exactly do you mean by that?” I was careful not to shut him down right away. Something in the back of my mind was either warning me against crushing his ego, or urging me to let him run into the enemy fire so I could watch him dance.
“I mean, why do English teachers spend the entire class talking about whether so-and-so did the right thing, and whether we would do the same thing, when what English should really be about is talking about how the English is used? I mean, it is a study of English, not morals and stuff.”
English should be a study of English – what a novel idea. He should write an essay about that, I thought.
Why do we study English? I wondered. Rather than ask an English teacher – as a school principal I do have connections, after all – I reflected back on the previous night which was, as fate would have it, another episode of “English in our Lives”. Despite a freak storm that had sent countless – actually we counted five – vehicles into gutters across this fine city, I was racing to avoid the embarrassment of arriving at a church concert late. I wouldn’t have ordinarily feared any measure of opprobrium for appearing late at a church – I seem to recall it happening before – but my wife was scheduled to turn the pages for the piano accompanist, which is awfully difficult to manage when your fingers feel like icicles, you haven’t caught your breath when you appear on stage, and, oh yes, you haven’t yet been introduced to the pianist or the music.
As luck would have it, the storm that had entertained us for the past 40 minutes had had the same effect on other would-be audience members, and so I actually had a few moments to nestle into my most upright oaken pew and pore over the evening’s programme before the concert got underway, some ten minutes late. As though God was having a joke on us, the tenor had chosen Schubert’s Die Winterreise, “Winter’s Journey”, to sing that night. As my smirk faded, I began to read through the English translation of the 24 poems, which Schubert’s music would bring to life. The poems, by German poet, Wilhelm Müller, were, as someone suggested to me, ‘over the top’, but what struck me was how powerfully poetry plays upon the imagination and emotions, and how infrequently we consider inviting poetry into our lives. Did I really have to experience the modern urban version of the ‘Winter Journey’ to reach an experience of language as art? But more to the point, could a proper education in English form the requisite journey to a land where ‘language as art’ could be a common everyday experience?
So often when we hear a defense of the arts, we think of a place where art is preserved, not lived – art galleries, concert halls, libraries and museums of every description. At one time I believed that you studied the arts to be able to appreciate what all our taxes had paid for. Only those who had taken the pains to distinguish between chiaroscuro and mere contrast could truly experience Rembrandt’s genius when standing before one of his masterpieces. Only by reading the canon could one hope to know when one was reading literature and not mere drivel. But I am not convinced that the point of an education in English or the arts is merely to develop artistic judgement, although it certainly is a worthy by-product.
Nor do I think that the raison d’être for English courses, and the arts generally, is to render us able to make a living by producing novels, canvases, musical pieces or performances. Although many of us may entertain ourselves – but perhaps no one else – at the piano or guitar, it is generally rare for adults to paint, sculpt, dance, act, play or creatively write, despite years of slopping paint on large brownish sheets of paper, trying to conjure up short stories and poems out of our seemingly empty heads, and blowing a horn or banging a drum until our parents could bear no more. No, an education in the arts does not make performing artists of us all – nor should we expect it to.
I actually think that the effect of a good education in literature and the arts is to allow us to experience the world as art, and not merely when we are dragging our leaden feet through endless rooms of heavily framed Dutch masters, or pinching ourselves to stay awake while the orchestra launches into the third recapitulation of the second theme. A good education in the arts will help us to make all our experiences artful. It will free us from long lines at airports as we marvel at the texture that emerges unsolicited from the gray terrazzo floors. A good English teacher will enable us to imagine the life that lies behind the expressionless face of the checkout girl, or hear the eternal beauty of the recitation of prayers in our church, mosque or synagogue. A life of learning music has filled my every moment with musical potential. A simple act, like striking my toothbrush against the sink four times, can evoke the beginning timpani beat of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Moreover, our every emotion has a host of musical expressions, which lie just below the surface, giving voice to our many moods. An arts education is about more than enhancing the scattered moments of entertainment; it has the potential to give our lives a whole other dimension.
Ideally, if we have been well educated in the arts, our resulting view of the world will encourage us to engage with the world as artists, which isn’t to say that we’ll sing our arguments to the scowling judge, or paint our impressions of last year’s financial statements before the board. If we experience the world as imbued with the potential for beauty, harmony, rhythm, and meaningful patterns, we are more apt to bring these to the surface for others to see and hear.
In fact, one might even suggest that it is our duty to do so. For those of us who have had an education that has sensitized us to a world as art, we would do well to lay bare the world’s riches. Don’t keep your artistic moments to yourself. Talk of beauty. Help others to see patterns. Tap the imaginative potential of your best friend or spouse. We need to share our world as art in order to entice others to embrace that world.
But to do so, I find, requires us to continually challenge ourselves to re-imagine the world in new artistic ways. Thus, as it turns out, it is important to visit art galleries, read good literature and attend the ballet. For just as important as it is for our children to receive an education in literature and the arts, it is equally important that our artistic education not end at the age of 18. By immersing ourselves in the arts whenever possible we open our hearts and minds to develop fresh perspectives worthy of sharing. Time and again we hear a call for an education that leads to innovative approaches to the world’s staggering problems – a strong arts and literature education may be just the place to begin.
And that’s where my son is right. English teachers can’t shy away from the meat of what they teach. It may be palatable for students to feed on a diet of movie clips and discussions about what they already know, but if we really want students to come up with innovative solutions to the world’s problems, we have to do better than that. We have to give students the opportunity to experience literature at its very best, to examine the ways in which language becomes art, and to discover how they too, can harness that art to achieve their deepest imaginings and help fulfill our greatest dreams.
November 23rd, 2011
For most of you here today, a life without sport is inconceivable. Most of you could no more imagine a school without sports than a school without reading. And yet, around the world there are children who do not enjoy the privilege of engaging in organized sports. There are parts of the world, including areas that our students have travelled to, where one of the most important gifts we can bring is a simple ball. Organizations such as Right to Play have recognized the importance of sport and play in enriching some of the resource-poor areas of the world. Sport is a privilege for which we must be thankful.
But I also want to suggest to you that sports, although they may appear to be physical contests or mere games, are an essential component in our society and in our school.
Some might suggest that sports forms an education of the body, but for anyone who has been part of an extra-curricular sport, they know it is much more than an education of the body. Sports give our students the opportunity to train their bodies, their minds, and their spirits. Ultimately, sports are part of our overall mission to nurture engaged citizens of the world.
Sports engage the mind, body and soul in acitivities, when well coached, lead to those values that we associate with good citizens. Individual sports, such as cross-country running, help our athletes to build not only bodily endurance, but resilience, determination, courage and self-discipline. Team sports, such as basketball, may help develop sport-specific skills like dribbling and shooting, but they also encourage key citizenship values such as loyalty, cooperation, courtesy, leadership and respect. Can you imagine a successful school or world where there is no courage, where there is no cooperation or respect? How much better would our world be if our citizens had the determination of a champion athlete?
The students and staff who you have seen up here were not merely engaged in physical contests. They were involved in preparing themselves for a life in which all of these values will be important to them. They spent early mornings and late days facing obstacles and overcoming them. In so doing, they have become better people, better citizens. And I think they had a lot of fun doing it.
So, as we share in the successes of our student athletes on the field and court, let us remember that we are privileged to be so engaged, and we are privileged to be led by such a fine body of committed coaches. Please join me in thanking all the coaches who helped our students to become even better citizens of the world. We should also extend a vote of thanks to all score keepers and referees. I would also like to express my thanks for the support of Mr. Jones, our Head, and the entire Board of Directors. Let me thank as well the work of Mr. Feeney, who unfailingly keeps our coaches and players focused on the real values of sport.
To our student athletes, congratulations in performing so well on the court and field. I love to come out and watch you play – you have entertained us, inspired us, and demonstrated to us what it means to be engaged citizens of the world.
February 2nd, 2011
Today was a gift sent to us from on high – from God? the weather reporter? the school board? – and before the day is completely done, I want to offer up thanks. Snow days are not an everyday occurrence in Toronto, whether it is because Buffalo habitually swallows up the majority of the moisture that lifts off Lake Erie, or because we in Toronto remember better our ancient past when our forebears wouldn’t think twice about trudging through the snow to school (uphill). It is supposedly the first time since Mayor Mel called in the army in 1999 that we have enjoyed a snow day. And enjoy, I have. And more than that, my experience taught me something about education – the education of the body.
After getting the announcement out to our school community that we were closing up shop for the day, and dispatching a reasonable morning’s worth of emails, I headed out through the drifts to the shed at the back of the property – 10 meter’s distance, no less – to dig out my cross-country skis. While neighbours stood sentinel in Ken Dryden stance, shovels clasped firmly under their chins, I silently glided past, evoking the occasional smile and friendly comment. Parenthetically, it is worthy of note that humans respond much better than do dogs to the cross country skier – last week’s foray into the ravines leading down to the Brickworks resembled a WWII prisoner-of-war escape movie, except set in the steppes of Russia, complete with snarling dogs of all sizes and descriptions that were bound and determined to bring me to justice.
Today the dogs must have been snuggling safely inside – wondering, no doubt, what would possess humans to want to push and throw the snow this way and that – as I was able to proceed unchased through the near-virgin snow of the side streets, choosing this tire track or another as a convenient guide for my skis. I learned that shushing down Pottery Road hill on the sidewalk is made dangerous, not so much by the traffic, but by the occasional salt patch, one of which pitched me first forward, then backwards, finally propelling me into a (thankfully) deep and forgiving snow bank. I was no worse for wear – although I’m sure my backside carried evidence of my fall from gracious form – and I carried on my way.
My destination was the trail along the Don River, which meanders through the heart of Toronto, blissfully unaware of the six lane highway that accompanies it on its way to the shores of Lake Ontario. Sandwiched between the river and the constant shhhh sound of the cars that bear the working, but not teaching, citizens to their cubicles in the sky, I kept my head down and focused on the thin track that had been set by a fellow skier.
I have both skied and run this trail before, but never before had I allowed music to share the journey with me. Today was different, as I had recently been shown, techno-dinosaur that I am, that yes, that wire can be plugged into that Blackberry, and that I, too, can look like every other city dweller, with long black earrings hanging from my ears and disappearing into my upper garments, miraculously drawing sounds from my pocket. I have resisted this modern penchant for constant music for quite some time. I virtuously asserted to myself (no one else would listen) that I wanted to be in the moment, connected to my environment, whether it be the deep woods, or the interior of a subway car. I think I have finally decided that the interior of a subway car is highly over rated. Hence the advent of the new, plugged-in me.
So, although for those who might have spied me from the Danforth subway cars I appeared a solitary skier, I was not entirely alone. Franz Schubert was right there with me. And thanks to Schubert, I became acutely aware of the rhythm of the body in motion. The lilting rhythms of Schubert’s melodies gave me the impression that I was not just skiing, but was dancing across the snow. I was reminded once again that part of what I love about sports is the sheer beauty of the body in rhythm. I have often likened the basketball player or the diving football receiver to the ballet dancer, and for me, on this day, I was able to experience that beauty firsthand.
All of which suggests to me that we have a great duty in our schools to educate our children so that they can live a life in which they find opportunities to reconnect with beauty through their bodies. I hear of so many adults who see their children’s sports in terms of competition and being in the best leagues, when the vast majority of mature adults never experience sports (except virtually, from the couch), or their bodies, in these ways. It is with good reason that we call that course that occurs in the gym Physical Education, and not Sports.
And there is every reason to expose our students to a wide variety of physical expressions. At The York School, we have always balanced the learning of competitive sports with the learning of other recreations, such as dance and yoga. I now appreciate that these early experiences of a wide variety of movements, rhythms and balance reside with us throughout our lives, to be reawakened, either by our own bodies’ movement, or in response to the movements of others. How much more do we enjoy watching a sport or recreation that we have played, as our bodies’ have developed empathy for the rhythms inherent in the activity?
So it was, that a snow day became a school day in which my body’s experience taught me a thing or two about how to prepare our children’ bodies for a life of rhythm and beauty.
November 15th, 2010
What in the world do you do after two days of Speak Out Day and TEDxIBYork? Better yet, what in the world do you do after 10 months of preparing for the most inspiring educational event that you have ever helped plan in your entire life?
Indeed, what in the world?
Taking a step in Ray Zahab’s direction (Ray told us about his run across the Sahara), I tied up my runners, ignored my aches, pains and grumbling stomach, and ran the slightly-less-than-Sahara-desert distance into the school this morning, which was the best decision I’ve made since I agreed to help organize TEDxIBYork. Two days of full-scale engagement with people – their passions and their ideas – requires a marathon of reflection. I’ve only started with five-kilometers worth, but I know that I could handle about 40 days in the wilderness to piece together the myriad thoughts and emotions I have experienced over the past 48 hours.
For those of you who weren’t there, I feel a deep sense of regret that I didn’t do more to get you there. I suddenly know what it feels like to have evangelical fervor. Everyone should have the opportunity to be so inspired. During the two days we heard over 40 passionate speakers share their visions, dreams, innovations, ideas, lessons learned, expertise, talents, and achievements.
We were given a tour of humanity and the world we inhabit. We travelled from the Arctic to Antarctica, from Kenya to Red Lake, from the Amazon jungle to the Sahara Desert, and from board rooms to cyberspace.
We heard from 14 incredible IB Diploma students during the Speak Out Day, the winner of which, Faisal Chaudhry of the International Academy (outside Detroit, Michigan), spoke to almost 500 assembled adults and students at the main TEDxIBYork event. At TEDxIBYork, we were enthralled by designers, doctors and dreamers, teachers, techno-wizards, and thinkers, sages, scientists, and social engineers, a painter, two poets and a ‘pirate’.
What in the world did we learn?
Beyond the simple facts – that the true size of Africa could encompass most of the territories of Europe, the United States, India, Japan and China, that the female species of a peculiar spider is one hundred times the size of its male mate, that over 50% of students at one school modified their science data on science labs, that Canada has the second worst voter turnout of the 17 major developed democratic nations in the world, or that a herniated disc can be treated by an ozone syringe that fits in your hand – we learned that caring, creativity, collaboration, determination, discipline, dreaming, focus, and risk-taking have enormous currency in our modern world. And we were left with nothing but hope and the conviction that whatever the obstacles the world may bring, we are equipped to meet those challenges and forge a better life for all.
But for me, it was the risk-taking that resonated most deeply. Just one of the ten attributes of the IB Learner Profile, risk-taking has always stood as a difficult quality for a school, or parent, to nurture; risk-taking is very much a two-edged sword. Generally, our society abhors risks. In business, risk is defined as the “probability or threat of damage, injury, liability, loss, or other negative occurrence”. For Faisal, our student winner, “risk” translates to “cheating” in the world of a high-school science student. But at the same time, some of the life stories we heard challenged us to consider how we should take risks in our own lives.
The most interesting story came from Ben Gulak, teenage inventor of the Uno motorcycle and Shredder, a motorized skateboard on tracks. At the age of 14, Ben entered a robotic Sumo wrestling competition, where he had to programme a two-wheeled robot to drive its competitor out of the ring. The only thing they were given was the opening code, which sent each of the two robots to opposite edges of the ring. Ben cleverly (?), wrongfully (?), boldly(?) removed the code and re-entered a code that enabled his robot to follow the other robot to the edge of the ring and proceed to push the robot out of the ring before it had an opportunity to turn around. Thus began Ben’s successful career. He then went on to describe how high school had to be pushed to the side to allow more time for working on his prototype for the Uno. Lots of risks taken. Interestingly, Ben quotes Steve Jobs on his website: “Good artists copy, great artists steal”.
And then there was Rob McEwen, who, having taken a controlling interest in Goldcorp, proceeded to make all of their mining data available on the web so that other mining experts in the world could come up with a solution to allow them to economically take advantage of the wealth below the surface of their Red Lake property. A fascinating open source risk that literally hit gold.
Which speech is going to have a more lasting impression – Faisal’s plea that we don’t cheat on science labs or the life experiences of Ben and Rob?
Of course, not all business risks turn out so well. Canadians know another life story. It is the story of Conrad Black, who was expelled from UCC for selling stolen exams, became one of Canada’s most successful businessmen, only to be convicted in 2007 of fraud in the United States, where he was sentenced to serve six and a half years in jail. Mr. Black, too, is a risk taker.
Trying to find the line that divides cheating from creative risk-taking in our daily lives is no easy task. As Faisal set out in his speech, it is important that we create serious consequences for those who cheat or take risks that society deems unacceptable; one would have thought that Mr. Black had met with enough of those. But as we know, the ‘rules’ are many-layered and even though you may obey the official rules, you may decide to contravene social conventions, promises, guidelines, or understandings, or take advantage of vagueness, and loop holes. Or like one little girl filmed in a TEDtalk we saw, when faced with the choice of eating one marshmallow right away or waiting and receiving a second marshmallow, we might just decide to suck out the centre of the marshmallow and leave the appearance of having played according to the rules!
One way of distinguishing good risks from bad risks is the measure of global good to come from the risk. Just as Alexandria Chun, a student speaker from Halifax Grammar School, prompted us to carefully evaluate the comparative benefit from putting our resources into solving one world problem over another, so too must we do a cost-benefit analysis of all risks we undertake. And in that analysis, we must attribute a large multiplier to tasks taken on purely for the benefit of others. As Kyle Nimmrichter, from Robert Bateman High School, suggested to us, we must embrace selflessness and “participate in something that is greater than ourselves.”
Decisions to embrace selfless risks frequently carry with them great costs for the person taking the risk. In the TEDtalk of Raghava KK, an Indian artist who re-created himself five times, it was evident that in taking the risk of following artistic truth, you may cause yourself financial ruin and public shame, but in the end, you will have the great satisfaction of having grown into a being a greater artist.
For those of us who made the decision to launch and then plan TEDxIBYork and Speak Out Day, it is now only too apparent that we had decided upon something that was “greater than ourselves”. I have had people since tell me that the TEDxIBYork event was one of the top 10 days of their life, and that the two days formed the best professional development of their life. But for me, the power of the experience and the risks undertaken lasted 10 months, not merely two days. I discovered that risks undertaken for something greater than yourself tend to push you beyond your limits, testing your preconceptions about who you are and what you can accomplish. I also discovered the truth at the heart of Margaret Mead’s oft-quoted words: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The costs were great, although mostly in time and sleepless nights. But in the course of taking on a dream such as this, as Ray Zahab would have said, you turn the impossible into the possible. And who can argue with that?!
So what in the world do you do after taking on a risk that is “greater than ourselves”?
Simple – take on another.
I guess I better tie up those running shoes again!
May 19th, 2010
Lucky for me, I work in a community where people are forever sending me things that I should read or watch. Someone I can always count on for something worth considering is Justin Medved, our resident virtual world guru. He recently handed me a documentary called “Resolved”, which is a fascinating exploration of the world of high school debating in the US. Having coached debating at our school for a good number of years before the younger generation of teachers took over, I thought I knew all about the debating world – the impromptu debate, the prepared debate, parliamentary and cross-examination style debates, points of order, and yes, even squirreling a resolution. But within 10 seconds of beginning to view the documentary, I realized that US high school debating was something entirely different than I had ever experienced on this side of the border. The “talk” of these debates had taken on an entirely new meaning. Which has raised to my mind the question of what “talk” is all about, and how might schools best shape it.
Imagine, if you will, a contest in which the winner is the one who can state as many arguments in a set amount of time as is possible, keeping in mind that the arguments must relate to the resolution, and must successfully meet the arguments raised by the opponent. In case your imagination hasn’t quite grasped this, think of the Flight of the Bumblebee played in under a minute, and imagine that instead of bow strokes on a violin, you are listening to arguments recited in a falsetto voice. That is what US high school debating sounds like.
Canadian debating is, I believe, a different kettle of fish. Students must not only muster arguments and meet the opposition so as to create what is known as “clash”, they must do so in a manner that persuades the ordinary listener to agree. A Canadian debater must employ humour, voicing, dramatic pauses and an appeal to the values of the audience. A judge in a Canadian debate must evaluate each speaker according to a number of different criteria, including persuasiveness. This contrasts with an American judge’s task, which is to count up points, and follow the flow of the arguments.
The documentary, “Resolved”, focuses upon the fact that debating has been made exclusive by virtue of the rules and criteria that guide their debates. Debating in the US, it argues, favours the select few who have the resources to compile the research and are able to follow the flow of high speed arguments. Although the thesis was compelling, I was equally fascinated by the secondary question of what makes for meaningful speech.
The documentary follows two teams, one from a well-to-do high school in Texas, and the other, a pair of black students from a more mixed high school in Long Beach, California. Both teams are extremely talented. In the end, the black students end up taking the revolutionary approach of identifying their own personal stake in the resolution, openly questioning the rules and values of the debate, and authentically indicating their own purpose and plans for addressing the resolution in their own lives. Whereas the other students are seen to read off prepared scripts, each meticulously filed in readiness to meet the appropriate argument, the black students face the judges and speak from their convictions.
In digesting what I had seen, I came to realize that speech takes on so many forms, and is bound by so many situation-specific rules. High school debating is merely an overly contrived forum for talk, where the rules and criteria for success are largely prescribed and overt. We all face talk situations where we must sort out the rules and then use them to our advantage. At home, children and parents live out unwritten agreements as to the use of vocabulary, emotion, evidence, body language, and voicing, and these inherent rules or expectations are quickly supplanted by other sets of rules when we walk into our place of business, encounter a policeman, talk to our child’s teacher, or meet friends at a local restaurant. Thus, it might be imagined that one of the purposes of a good education is to prepare students to analyze rules, detect expectations, read audiences, and shape their words, gestures, tone, and content to meet every conceivable talk situation. That would be a good education – but would it be enough?
There seem to me to be two answers to this question. In the first place, and as part of the agenda of the black students in the documentary, it is not enough to be trained to meet the situation. For black youth in America, it may be insufficient to learn the rules and live by the rules, particularly when the rules have been developed by a white majority, or worse still, a privileged white minority. As suggested by the documentary, a revolutionary education would empower students to change the rules, and not merely abide by them. The second answer is that to truly educate students, we must not merely teach them to talk, we must help them to develop a voice.
This first answer would seem, at first, to have no place in a private school education. It might be suggested by some that private schools are chosen by parents in order that their children may best understand the rules of the game, and play that game to their advantage. Arguably, this is a mistaken view of private schools, and more importantly, it may be an outmoded view of society and the ways in which people succeed.
Private schools are generally focused upon delivering “21st century skills” to our students, and perhaps number one among these skills is critical thinking. Critical thinking, when properly taught, has the potential to be a dangerous thing. That is to say, a youth introduced to critically think will have both the ability to analyze and the ability to critique. Students will see the parts, and they will see what lies behind the parts. They will see the form, and they will see the intentions that shape the form. Critical thinking makes acceptance of society and its rules a choice and not a duty.
I think it is also safe to say that our society is not so arranged that success comes from merely following the rules. With the pace of technological change and the increasing “flattening” of the world, it is the people who break the rules and give birth to new paradigms who have the greatest success, and not the people who merely follow along. Sure, educated people will want to know how to follow the rules, but they will also want to be able to assess where the rules are taking us all, and be prepared to question those rules. When it comes to the rules of how we communicate with one another, the landscape is changing daily, and those who can think critically and are prepared to take risks in charting new approaches will be able to guide our society to more meaningful engagement and social harmony.
But the second answer is even more compelling. Let us not merely see it as our task to educate students to be able to talk well, let us strive to give every child a voice.
The difference between talk and voice is apparent to every student. Students hear countless speeches from countless individuals at assemblies, class presentations, and on screen. They can detect the difference between those who move their mouths but do not speak to them and those who transport their audience beyond the value of the mere words. Although there are tricks, rhetorical devices, and dramatic techniques that enhance oral communication, there is nothing quite like conviction to catapult a voice across the divide of teenage disinterest, such that the voice lands, not in the ear, but in the heart. How, then, do we teach students to speak with conviction?
Conviction is a surprisingly rare commodity in the public eye, I would suggest. It is out of favour at social gatherings – although it has been suggested to me that this is largely a Canadian phenomenon. We skeptically assume that politicians don’t have it, even when they are applying every rhetorical tactic in their arsenal to convince us that they do. We are bedeviled by a world of advertising in which we come to believe that everything is a sales job.
So how do we get students to see the value of conviction and to live and speak on the basis of their convictions?
In order to speak by your convictions you must be in touch with your convictions. You must “know” in the sense that you must know in your heart. Thus, we must be in the business of helping young people to find their heart. They need to be given the opportunity to discover their true feelings about the world, and they must receive the message that it is okay to express those feelings. An excellent education invokes and provokes an emotional response, but it also protects the individual such that they can take the risks to make public their emotions.
Invoking emotions is a tricky business. It requires an understanding of audience and a dedication to making the curriculum relevant. You have to know your students if you have any hope of reaching them. You have to find the hot spots in your curriculum and give students the opportunity to respond to them. Protecting souls is even trickier. A great teacher makes it his or her business to develop a class dynamic in which trust and respect are paramount.
An essential part of our school’s mission which I think has the greatest potential to help develop voice is our commitment to experiential education. One of the keystones of experiential education is the establishment of authentic experiences – experiences in which what is at stake has deep and multi-layered significance for the student. This is where reflections become so crucial, and where talk is full of conviction. This is where voice can emerge. Listen to students who have come back from working in an orphanage in India. The developed world is not a concept for these students – it is a complex reality that is clothed in personal meaning. And from deep personal meaning come convictions, the foundation of voice.
Thus, a great education does not merely equip our students to talk the talk, but gives them the power to raise their voices and shape the whole future of discourse.
January 21st, 2010
Just as there is a myth that creativity is possessed by a small minority of individuals, so too is it becoming an accepted truth that schools are the number one enemy to creativity. So says Ken Robinson in a TEDtalk entitled “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” So says Beatrix Potter, who supposedly wrote, “Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality.” God help us if they are right.
The story goes like this: children are creative – adults are not. Children play at games that they have made up; adults sit in boardrooms and nod their heads. According to one website, whereas children see sixty alternatives in any one situation, adults see anywhere from three to six. What is responsible for this differential? Schools, of course. There are even poster boys/girls for the “I am creative because I didn’t go to school” club – Mozart, Shakespeare (left school at age 13, it is suggested), and, yes, Beatrix Potter. According to Ken Robinson, schools want right answers. Wrong answers are frowned upon (except in art, where all answers are right). No one gets marks for taking risks, so it is best just to play along, narrow the field of alternatives as much as possible, avoid embarrassment , and move on to university.
Perhaps in an earlier age, a principal in my position would have conceded that schools are not in the business of producing creative souls. When I grew up, suggesting to my parents that I wanted to devote my life to creativity would have been received like news that I had joined a commune. Creativity had its place – in classes dedicated to visual arts and drama (not so much music – that was all about practicing).
But all of that is changing. Daniel Pink, in his enormously influential book, A Whole New Mind, enshrines creativity among the “six essential aptitudes on which professional success and personal fulfillment now depend”, according to the website that hawks his book. Creativity will become the differentiator in the new economy. In a flat world of rapid and widespread movement of information, and the outsourcing of jobs to developing countries like India, creativity will be the key ingredient necessary to give North Americans the edge. Get creative, or get replaced.
More than that, there is a general feeling that creativity is the one thing that can save the world. The more that humans learn about the complexities of the problems that we face – whether they be global warming, large-scale armed conflicts, or terrorism – the more we feel the need to find someone who can break the pattern, crack the code, and capture the imagination of those who will have to participate in the solutions.
So, are schools sapping our youth of their creativity? I think not. There is little evidence that adults were so incredibly creative before the advent of schools. And what of all of the people who did manage to survive schools and went on to compose symphonies, paint pictures, and design buildings?
Arguably, creativity would have difficulty finding a foothold in a society that lacked schools. Creativity is not merely about coming up with the new and different. Every time I try to sing something around the house, it ends up being quite novel, but none of my kids think I’m very creative. If creativity were merely about being the source of that which is unique, we’d all score high. Creativity has an added value dimension. A creative person produces things – ideas, patterns, physical entities – that are new and have value. And that is where schools come in.
Schools are about value. The reason adults come up with three to six alternatives to the child’s 60 alternatives is because the adult has, through years of schooling, learned that the 54 to 57 other alternatives have no value. Who is more likely to have a better hold on value –a person who has had her horizons broadened, has been able to study history and discovered how human actions lead to results, sometimes momentous, sometimes horrendous, has grasped the underpinnings and patterns that explain the universe, or someone who has been led pell-mell by his own desires and devices, the biases of her upbringing, and the limitations of his imagination? Creativity is not the child of ignorance, but the offspring of a liberal education. It doesn’t matter how uniquely your mind works, it won’t have any impact on engineering if you haven’t first understood science.
But is there a recipe for mixing the new with that which is already valued? Can a school guarantee that its students will be thinking outside the box when they leave the box (to enter another box, mind you)? I believe that there are a few principles that we can follow to ensure that students both know what is known and aren’t chained down by that knowledge.
In the first place, schools need to begin with a reflective and reform-minded approach to its own curriculum and teaching practices. We have to strive to be relevant; the box cannot be so outdated that students won’t engage in the task of working out who they are in relation to what is.
Secondly, an acceptance of the new, the quirky, and the unorthodox must permeate the institution from the top down. (Anyone who has seen me dress up for Halloween can attest to my quirkiness!) Risk-taking must become a habit; it must be modeled to the staff and the students. Teachers need to be encouraged to change things up, to remain fresh and relevant.
Thirdly, schools need to foster an interdisciplinary approach – in thinking and in programming. The creative solutions to the complex problems being faced in the world will come from those who can see the problems from a combination of disciplinary viewpoints. We need to mix up our staff in meetings, design our curriculum to promote interdisciplinary thinking, and encourage our students to maintain an interest in all disciplines.
Fourthly, and related to the need to create an interdisciplinary approach, we need to continue to foster learning that is collaborative. The survival of the world cannot rely upon solitary individuals to think up solutions. As Margaret Mead is frequently quoted to say, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” We tend to think of creativity as springing from the individual, perhaps because when we think of creativity we narrowly focus upon the arts – Picasso, Beethoven, and Shakespeare stand for us as models of creativity. But consider how creativity works in real life – the creative forces of marriage, business partnerships, friendships, think tanks, and working groups. Wherever there is discourse, there is the potential to forge plans and ideas that transcend the limited horizons of the individual.
Fifthly, we owe it to our children to introduce them to the very best of the creative forces that have walked the earth. Just as the discourse between two or more individuals can spawn new ideas, so too can the individual’s engagement with the works of the greats inspire creativity. As I said to my son, a young aspiring author, you will not become a great writer if all you read is “Captain Underpants”. Our children deserve to be touched deeply, to encounter something of the eternal, and to feel the magic that comes when greatness is encountered.
And finally, we have to give our students the opportunity to be creative in every discipline. As a recent article suggested to me, science is for arguing. Math is for wondering. Physical education is for the exploration of the body and space. Modern languages should allow us to create with the whole world. Every test and every class must have open-ended questions.
Fortunately, I see sure signs of such an education in our school. Teachers are working collaboratively to develop a curriculum that is relevant and significant. Risks are being taken by teachers to ensure that all students experience learning. The school has embraced an interdisciplinary approach, especially in the Middle and Primary Years programmes. Students are guided through collaborative learning from the youngest grades to the Grade 12 “Group IV project”, in which the four sciences come together to study the environment. Students read Shakespeare, listen to Stravinsky, and research their artistic heritage in developing their own voice and vision to share with the world.
And I end with the experience that impelled me to write this piece – watching music videos produced in one of our grade 12 math classrooms. That’s right. Our IB Diploma math teacher, Fatima Remtulla, has students create music videos to illustrate specific math rules. Go figure.
So the next time you marvel at a wonderful canvas, beautiful score of music, clever advertising campaign, or amazing technological gizmo, think not only of the creative genius that developed it, but think of the incredible school that made it all possible, a school that didn’t lose sight of the possibility of the ‘new’ in the midst of all the ‘right’ answers.
November 3rd, 2009
The elementary school I attended as a boy was an interesting contrast to the school I inhabit now. Named after the nation’s recent World War I experience, “Victory” Public School had a large yard that surrounded it, separated from the dangers of the street by a Frost link fence. The large doors facing vaguely in the direction of the south (no street in Guelph manages to head in a simple cardinal direction) were labeled “Girls” and the large doors that faced in the opposite direction were labeled “Boys”. The large doors that faced the west (west north west?) were separated from the children playing “British Bulldog” below by an enormous set of stairs, which to my child’s eye had to rival my adult’s view of the stairs to Lincoln’s monument; needless to say, we never, ever, entered those doors. Perhaps parents mounted those stairs, although I was inclined to believe they were intended for the Queen’s next visit. Every morning we stood and rehearsed the Lord’s Prayer (except one day when I decided that a constitutional challenge was in order, which was swiftly followed by a visit to the Principal’s office), and sang the national anthem, and every Remembrance Day we sang the Anglican hymn, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”.
Perhaps students who attend Victory Public School today experience it just as I did – as a reflection of a society that had not yet forsaken its roots. I highly doubt it. For even in the late sixties, when I had to line up before the “Boys” entrance, the attempt was doomed to fail. Nationalism was dying faster than the soldiers who were thrust into the battle against communism in Vietnam, Christianity was giving way to the glories of love, peace and human rights, and a society divided up by class, rank, age, and sex was being overwhelmed by the freedoms announced some 200 years earlier. And although I have no desire to have our children return to the world of my youth, I am struck by the attempt of our forbears to create a school that was something more than an institution in which we were to learn the 3 “R”s. Victory School was designed to represent to me the full dimensions of the society in which I hoped to become a full-fledged member.
Of course, they had it wrong. They had banked on a future that wasn’t to be. The building’s design was a historic relic. The words of the songs were already being lost in our parents’ memory. But they also had it wrong in so far as they were content to rely upon symbols to reproduce the full dimensions of the life we were to lead. Except once – while I sat in the principal’s office regretting having refused to stand through that morning’s recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. I will never forget how Principal Comfort (a fitting name, as it turns out) managed to address my agnostic tendencies and provided me with a full explanation of why people – himself included- believed in God. He crossed the divide that separated me from his distant position of authority to share his true feelings about the great unknown. In religious terms, I remained unconverted, but what a pivotal moment it was for me, for looking back I realize that he introduced to me the potential depth of the educational experience – what I shall call the “third dimension”.
By the third dimension, I mean the depth of human character that is experienced in authentic moments of shared living. Slowly but surely, I am coming to the realization that a good private school offers this above all else.
When I ask teachers why they want to get involved in extra-curricular (now often called co-curricular) events, they say it is because they enjoy seeing the children they teach in a different dimension. What they often fail to note is that the experience is reciprocal. As much as the teacher discovers a third dimension in the children, who might otherwise appear as occupants of desks in their classroom, so too do the children begin to discover the fullness of the teacher. At our school, teachers are painters, and bicyclists, and social activists, and canoeists, and singers, and marathon runners, and chefs, and our teachers have dreams, and passions, and concerns, and, … lo and behold, they are in fact fully human. Which isn’t to say that teachers should walk into a classroom and pour out their worries or seek to shape our students’ political views. Rather, it is by exposing our students to a rich diversity of authentic learning activities, community service ventures, outdoor experiences and competitive events, that the humanity of our teachers comes out in full view.
And what of that, you might ask? What comes of a child’s exposure to the third dimension? A great deal, I would suggest. If there is one thing that I have learned as a parent, it is that for every lesson I have tried to teach my children, there have been 10 lessons learned that I had not set out to teach. I think that it is bound up in our motto, “Experientia Docet”, or “Experience teaches”. We hire teachers to teach lessons, but we also hire them to be good models – to have minds that probe and wonder, to have hearts that care, to have worthy goals to reach, and to be engaged with the world in which they live. If we, in turn, can allow our teachers to share their minds, hearts, goals and good examples with our students, how much richer our students will be for it. Their vision of a better world is not merely to be nurtured by the literature they read in English classes, the historic figures they encounter in history classes, or the marvels they discover in science labs. People are living to make a better world all around them – the lessons are there for the taking.
And there is more. Schools ideally want children to carry their lessons forward into their adulthood. Schools need to have a very distant goal in mind – not merely our students’ entrance into university, but their future lives as parents, community leaders and contributors to a society that will be as different from our current society as the society that gave birth to Victory Public School. Our classes will provide them with the tools to dissect that future society and to help them reveal the choices that lie beneath the surface of status cars and desirable addresses. The third dimension will help them to make the right choices.
Which brings me to the incident that stirred me to write this blog entry.
I was recently invited to attend a fundraising dinner on behalf of Global Pathways, a school begun recently in the province of Tamil Nadhu, India, by our former Head of School, Barbara Goodwin-Zeibots, our former Head of the Lower School, Barbara Galbraith and generously supported by member of our Board of Directors, Theresa Mersky. The school provides education to local Indian children who would not otherwise have received a formal education. The idea to begin a school in southern India has its roots in a programme that our school has run since Barbara’s time as school head. We send anywhere from 9 to 14 students with two or more teachers to an orphanage near Coimbatore, Families for Children, for three weeks in March each year. It is the sort of programme that changes our students’ lives, forcing them to see the world through eyes much different than their own.
When I first arrived at the dinner I was happy, although not surprised, to find among the 300 guests fellow staff members and parents of students, past and present. They, like me, had been inspired by the selfless actions of these three and wanted, in some way, to emulate their example. What thrilled me the most, though, was to be approached by members of our alumni who, recently graduated from university and trying to make their way in a world short on starting positions, found it within themselves to make a donation and be present at a worthy event. Here was proof that the third dimension had made an impact on our students, and that our students were going to play a part in shaping a better world beyond. It suddenly brought home to me what a different school experience these students had had compared to the one I experienced at Victory Public School. I realized that our lives were entwined in a way that never would have been imaginable for me growing up in a public school. They had experienced the third dimension, and I was given the opportunity to share in their lives once again, on the edge of a wider world stage, where the possibilities for creating a better world seemed so much greater than when we faced one another in a classroom, some six to eight years earlier. It won’t be long before they will be the leaders, and I, in turn, will be inspired to emulate their example, and follow them in building a future that we all want to share.