Restorative Justice Practices in Schools

Restorative justice practices were established by Indigenous communities thousands of years ago. The community sat in a circle. Each person had a chance to speak. Every other person was expected to actively listen. Then the problem was tackled by the community. The expectation was that a solution would be achieved. Sometimes the result led to healing and moving forward. Other times the collective good was served but an individual was harshly punished.

Our take-away in Western society was not surprising.  In a society that recognizes speed as a sign of intelligence, the most expeditious path was to skip the talk.  Look at the rules.  Apply the punishment.  Expedite.  This is how the prison system became firmly entrenched and the strap made it’s way into school practices until the early 1970’s .  The circle became a line.  The power of the process was lost.  Fear of punishment trumped understanding or learning from mistakes.

My friend, Latash, introduced me to a healing circle during an Indigenous Youth Exchange Program with middle school students in Coquitlam and Ottawa.  During part of the trip to Ottawa, rules were broken.  Safety was compromised.  I was the teacher in charge and ultimately responsible to the school district for navigating through the process.  Latash was the Indigenous support worker helping me to use Indigenous practices to facilitate the learning through an Indigenous lens.  We sat in a circle with all of the students and people facilitating the Ottawa side of the trip.  For me it was painful.  It was SO slow.  And yet, in the long game, it defined how I approach discipline with my kids and my students. 

Meaningful learning always takes place over time.  It is slow.  It is not sped up by fear of reprisal.  As a kid, I learned fear of an authority figure results in resentment.  As I parent, I learned early on that punishment frequently results in anger rather than reflection.  Energy was circumvented away from learning.   Learning is the focus of parents.  It is the mandate in the education system.  Our purpose in intervening with children’s behaviour is teaching them to understand that their actions have consequences.  It may be a safety risk.  It may be to help them adopt another perspective so they can empathize with the person or people they have hurt, either physically or emotionally.  All of the problems in history have emerged when people allow there wants to take first priority and they fail to see the humanity in other people.  The process of learning is a circle not a line. 

Restorative practices necessitate that families and schools work together.  Parents are not informed after the fact but part of the process in moving forward.  They are part of the process of teaching their child the difference between right and wrong, fair and unfair, kind and unkind.  It provides support for the student making the error in judgement to consider their motivation and decide who it is they want to be in the world and how they are going to get there. 

Restorative practices also provide a voice to the recipient of the problematic behaviour.  It is also their opportunity to decide who they want to be in the world and plot a path forward.  The opportunity to stand up straight, shoulders back, make eye contact and express their feelings and expectations.  When I was teaching Grade 5/6 one day, the class was noisy, and I was clearly looking exasperated.  James looked over at me and said,

“Want me to do it?”

My response,

“Go for it!”

“Excuse me… Do I look amused?” stated James emphatically, leaning back slightly, right toe forward, back foot at a right angle.

The class went silent.  From then on, students would beg to be chosen to work their magic.  For me, I watched as students replicated me exactly and achieved the intended result.  It became part of how I instructed students to express their truth.  Stand up straight.  Shoulders back.  Unafraid.  Unintimidated.  Lessons from my father, Dr. Peter Dyck, who was afraid of no one and listened to by all.  Opportunity is created within the healing circle for your voice to be heard.  How to project that voice so it is learned.

In any school that I have work in, the success of restorative practices has hinged on parents and school staff working together with the children involved.  Everyone must buy into the process.  Everyone must be focussed on learning rather than retribution.  This includes the police liaison officer at the school.  The voice of our police liaison officer has been instrumental in providing the instruction required in order to avoid the life altering impact of entering the criminal justice system.  The support of the counsellor has provided an avenue for the process of healing to continue.  Parents have provided the safety for their child to voice their feelings and move beyond poor choices.

Poor decisions are part of being human.  Learning from poor decisions is not guaranteed unless a process is designed.  Restorative justice practices from Indigenous cultures provide an avenue that incorporates reflection on past behaviour and learning.  The healing circle in Ottawa did not leave me as a popular entity on the trip.  However, everyone left the circle understanding the reasons for my decisions and the paramount concern and responsibility for student safety.  The process gave me a voice and provided a structure for students to take responsibility for their choices.  In schools, my goal is for student to reflect on their behaviour and navigate a path forward.  The best case scenario is to support  students making poor choices to make better choices in the future.  It is also to allow the recipient of poor choices to stand tall and say I deserve better and believe it.

Saving Bonnie Henry

One only has to tap into social media to witness the vilification of Bonnie Henry.  Once hailed as the heroic public health officer of British Columbia helping to flatten the curve in a world gone crazy.   Now the bullseye on the target for all that is wrong in the world.  The conduit of a year’s worth of anger and frustration with a global pandemic leads to her.   The go to place of humanity, find someone to blame. 

I do not like all of Bonnie Henry’s decisions. I look to Taiwan. All businesses are open. People are travelling and working in the country. They are having fun. The last case of COVID was a month ago. It is a society where people respond to clear direction and seem to agree with harsh punitive measures for individuals who don’t follow the rules. We champion human rights and trade unions and individual rights in British Columbia. All good measures of a healthy democratic society. But in the midst of a global pandemic, a belief in collective rights have allowed other countries to make decisions that do not appear to be possible in our society.

If all people went to Whistler and followed the protocols for skiing / snowboarding during COVID, then went home, the mountain would still be open.  If all restaurants showed the same kind of rigour in COVID practices as Rocky Mountain Flatbread in Kits, all restaurants could remain open for indoor dining.  If all businesses were as vigilant about limiting the number of customers at one time as Windsor Meats, we wouldn’t be worried about allowing shopping.  The reality is that not all people are following the designated COVID safety precautions with the same attention to the guidelines.

We have people in leadership positions needing to make difficult decisions.  Bonnie Henry is a bright, articulate woman who could find other ways to achieve fame and fortune if that was her modus operandi.  Squeezing her with vice grips does not allow her to serve us better.  Putting energy into consistently following COVID safety policy in this case allows for the collective rights of British Columbians to be served.  If this is not the case, she is put in the position of needing to make unpopular decisions that limit our range of activities.  Her goal is to limit the spread of COVID-19 and its variants for our safety as British Columbians. There are many variables such as travel from other provinces, compliance enforcement, and politics that are not under her control.

I do not envy Dr. Bonnie Henry for serving British Columbians in this leadership capacity.  Leadership in any capacity during COVID is extremely stressful and challenging.  I am grateful for her leadership. I hope she is feeling supported. I also hope she has some effective stress management practices in place. I suspect it is her only saving grace at this time.

Discovering Nora Hendrix

No rain in the forecast yesterday and an itch to do something different. The lack of variety in my COVID life is stifling. My husband and I checked out Dave Doroghy and Graeme Menzies ‘s book 111 PLACES IN VANCOUVER THAT YOU MUST NOT MISS for options. Our choice was focused by the fact that Black History Month is coming to an end. I love holidays, commemorative days, and times like this that focus our attention on learning something new. With the destination spot chosen, Nora Hendrix’s house at 827 East Georgia, we jumped on our bikes and headed east.

Mural by Ejiwa “Edge” Ebenebe

The mural at Nora Hendrix Place at 258 Union Street is on the bike route by the Dunsmuir viaduct and first catches my eye.  It is now temporary modular housing that is wheelchair accessible.  It opened in 2019, in partnership with Hogan’s Alley Society to meet the needs of Black and Indigenous Communities.  As a black community organizer, Nora Hendrix, helped establish the Fountain Chapel located at Jackson Avenue and Prior Street.  It was a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal church and an important cultural resource, a centre for gospel music, and gathering space for the Hogan’s Alley black community.  In the words of artist, Ejiwa “Edge” Ebenebe:  “Motifs of music and laughter emerge throughout the stories and memories I have encountered…” 

The was actually no person named Hogan that the community was named after.  Hogan’s Alley was the name of a comic strip about an Irish ghetto in Hell’s Kitchen, New York.  The idiomatic reference was used to describe this poor neighbourhood of Italian and black people on the edge of Chinatown in Vancouver.  A few factors brought the black population to Vancouver.  Two immigrant streams, one from Oklahoma via Alberta and one from California came to escape growing racism in the United States.   Vancouver was also the end of the line for two major train companies.  Trains traditionally provided work for black people as railway porters in the United States and this tradition was continued in Canada.  It was a good position with a uniform, travel and decent pay.  Vancouver was also a major city for entertainment.  Many performers such as Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Junior, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Mitzi Gaynor to The Cave, The Palomar, Izzy’s, Granville Street and after hours to restaurants and speak-easies.  Mami’s Chicken was one of first places to provide southern comfort food and a place where everyone was welcomed.  The tradition grew as did the speak-easy’s skirting the 1917-1920 prohibition in B.C.  Vie’s Chicken and Steak House opened in 1948 with Randy Clark’s grandfather as the greeter and his grandmother, Vie doing the work.  This is where Nora Hendrix worked as a cook and allowed Jimi access to many significant performers on his regular visits to Vancouver up until 1952.

Nora Hendrix was born in Tennessee and part of a travelling vaudeville act.  When the Seattle troupe went broke, she and her husband Ross headed to Vancouver in 1911.  They raised their three boys in Vancouver in Hogan’s Alley.  Nora lived until 100 years of age and was known to be in the crowd when Jimi Hendrix performed in the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver in 1958. 

Nora Hendrix’s House

The advent of the car culture brought with it a push for people to live in the suburbs and work in the city.  Arthur Julius Burr, a building inspector of the day reference the dilapidation and social ills of the areas as a “blight that spreads like mould across the city.”  This resulted in the clear cutting of Hogan’s Alley.  Only objections from the entire city prevented the proposed 12 lane highway being built through the city.  However, the building of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts in 1972 obliterated the western end of Hogan’s Alley and marked the first and last black neighbourhood.  Much of the population dispersed through-out the rest of the city.

Hendrix Family home 1938-1952

The Nora Hendris’s house is well taken care of and is marked with a granite Heritage House marker with historical information.  It has obviously been renovated with a suite downstairs.  While we are checking it out, three young boys migrate towards the suite.  We wonder, if they know the significance of living in this house.  An important part of the history of the city that only recently been pulled back from remote memory back into a place of pride in our collective civic consciousness.  I’m transported back to a Whistler ski trip with my friend Karen Monteith where her older sister blasted Jimi Hendrix for the whole trip.  And this was where it all started. 

Doroghy, D. and Menzies, G. 111 PLACES IN VANCOUVER THAT YOU MUST NOT MISS @EMONS

“Secret Vancouver Return to Hogan’s Alley” – YouTube

(with Randy Clark, Vie Moore’s grandson and the Crump Twins – discovered by Duke Ellington on Granville street and credited with teaching Sammy Davis Jr., to dance)

Redefining Who Belongs

One of my heroes – Charles Scott

Laura Tait, now an Assistant Superintendent in the Nanaimo, British Columbia once said

 “You want to learn about Indigenous culture, make an Indigenous friend.” 

Sage advice.  With friendship comes trust that you are valued, a sense of belonging, and a willingness to give “the benefit of the doubt” to a person.   It is not always something we are able to structure.  I have many different circles of friends.  Many are based on common experiences such as interacting at the same elementary school, secondary school, university, or workplace.  Some came out of a common interest or a chance meeting that you would never be able to plan, like meeting while dancing or at parent-teacher conferences.

The mother of one of my friends in high school was an amazing chef and owned a French restaurant in Kits.  During one of our very infrequent snowstorms in Vancouver, the busses stopped running.  We have a history of being ill-equipped to deal with snow in Vancouver.  I convinced my friend, Florence, to walk many, many kilometres to my house so I could escape her mother’s bouillabaisse and seek comfort of the oh so familiar macaroni and cheese at my house.  This has become a reference point for me in contemplating how many amazing opportunities are missed in the quest for the familiar. 

Being aware of different ways of living in the world certainly create an openness to learning about different people and their lived experiences.  That’s where books come in.  Engaging in new cultural experiences and food are also good starting points.  However, it is reaching out in friendship that provides the scaffolding to avoid awkwardness and the impetus to participate in the unfamiliar.  I have been lucky to have had people reach out.  It is the reason I have been able to participate in Eid celebrations, been welcomed into homes while teaching in China, and Pow Wows in Ontario, Quebec, and North Vancouver.

I love all things Cuban and yet, I didn’t travel to Cuba until relatively recently with my husband.  The appreciation of the art and the literary tradition came much later in life.  Travellers complain about the diet of roast pork, black beans and rice.  For me, it is comfort food.  My parent’s marriage was in trouble when I was born and the relationship with my father and stepmother evolved with a healthy dose of tumultuousness.  In high school, I became friends with Armando, even though he was making fun of my name in Grade 9 Math.  We spent lots of time at his house and his family restaurant, and I was embraced by his family.  I gravitated to the warmth, multi-generational interactions, and unconditional acceptance.  I didn’t identify difference.  I hung-out.  I laughed.  I cried.  I danced.  I established enduring relationships.  Race or identification as BIPOC did not enter the conversation until this year.  On the golf course, Armando shared his conversation with his brother, ruling out Latin-X as a descriptor.  I googled it and we considered “Hispanic” was a possibility.  And yet, it didn’t seem to fit either.  If this has never been a reference point for Armando’s family, is it helpful now? 

The persistence of racism has come to the forefront during the pandemic.  “I can’t breathe” brings the horrific social media images of George Floyd’s last moments of life at the hands of the police and the palpable inequity in the great American experiment in democracy.  No freedom and justice for all to be seen.  Since I joined Amnesty International in university and started teaching in the 80’s, the problem of systemic racism has been the focus of many actions and initiatives.  Yet, here we are in 2021 with racism used as a tool to solidify political control by more than one world leader, open acts of racism, and palpable anger.  Tessa McWatt does a nice job of boiling down the purpose of race as a construct.  As she cites (p.20-21), Aristotle justifying enslavement of “barbarians” by the Greeks in 322 BC.  Queen Elizabeth’s justification for the conquest of Ireland and its’ “savages in the 1650’s.  The 17th century manufacturing of racial difference to justify the expansion of the African slave trade into British territories in the Americas and Caribbean.  Difference was created to justify the actions of those in power at the time.  It was perpetuated for strictly economic purposes.  Sugar.  Cotton.  Tobacco.  Coffee.  Financial gain for some is so much higher if you don’t need to pay a work force.

I recently asked another of my dear friends why I talked more about her Indigenous heritage with her Dad and her youngest son.  Another warm and welcoming family who have embraced me and my family with open arms.  With her Dad at the helm, her family embraces their father’s Cherokee background with pride.  Judy has said that in academic circles, where we met, it just wasn’t a conversation that people wanted to have.  Her son taught me about the concept of “white passing “and the annoyance of having his own heritage dismissed because he doesn’t look “Indian” enough.  I was honoured to be in the room when his Grandpa presented him with an eagle feather when he graduated from university.  The significance of the ceremony is not defined by skin colour but of family and cultural tradition.

I learned more about Indigenous teachings, residential schools, and the systemic inequities in our Canadian system as a result of my cultural support worker in Coquitlam.  Latash, then known as Maurice Nahanee, asked me to sponsor an exchange with Indigenous students in the Coquitlam School District and a neighbourhood house in Ottawa.  It involved the trips to common Indigenous sites but with the family stories and experienced layered over top of the official version provided by Latash and the students with varied degrees of knowledge about their Indigenous ancestry.  I learned about Latash’s Squamish ancestors living and giving birth in Stanley Park.  I learned about the precious cedar baskets being taken to the Museum of Anthropology for safe keeping, then requests for use for ceremonial purposes being denied.  I learned about the legacy of residential schools and the long road back.  I also learned what it was to be “other”.  I was the voice of white authority.  The keeper of schedules.  The one who decided what was appropriate.  I held the power whether I wanted to or not.  I was not liked for much of the trip.  I was the other. It was not defined by the colour of my skin in our Canadian context.  Many of the students in group were “white passing’ with ancestors from many countries.   What set me apart was my white privilege.  Listening circles were an opportunity to be heard and foster empathy.  However, this very basic tenet of democracy, the right to a voice, has not shifted the power structures to one of equity.  At that time, Canadian “multi-culturalism” did not include or value our Indigenous population, and not even entered into the conversation about the systemic racism that explained why.

My friendship with Latash has opened me to many opportunities and my mind to consider other perspectives. I’ve been invited to naming ceremonies, pow-wows, and plays. The fear of making a misstep is cushioned by the friendship. My friend, Joyce Perrault, another amazing Youth and Family worker, has helped me to continue my learning journey through her work with students and the publication of her book, All Creation Represented: A Child’s Guide to the Medicine Wheel.

Joyce Perrault – Medicine Wheel Teachings

I got to know my good friend Kanwal, when we were engaged in a community building experience for our Faculty Associate orientation at Simon Fraser University.   I asked him if his turban was folded according to a specific region or whether it was a dress turban.  His response:

“It is the Gucci of turbans.”  The conversation started there, and it continues.

As a faculty associate team and we created our “Mind & Heart” module on a quote from the Dalai Lama.  We were invested in planning engaging interactions for our students who had completed their undergraduate degree and were completing their professional year to qualify and Kindergarten to Grade 12 teachers.  We grappled with how to frame our important professional knowledge in a context of social justice.   Of all my South Asian friends and acquaintances, I have learned most from Kanwal about what it is to be Sikh.  Conversations and participation in his daughter’s weddings, and the freedom to ask questions to have allowed me to experience the culture.  Dressing very inappropriately for the Gurdwara at his first daughter’s wedding, led to parents and colleagues at my school at the time, stepping in to help be ready for future Indian events.  I now have an Indian suit to die for and a selection of saris that require a professional dresser to wear.

I did not know my friend Sandy’s dad very well.  I knew he was an amazing Dad from Sandy’s stories about him taking her skiing and his overwhelming pride as he handed out sushi to the bagpiper, Scottish heritage in-laws, and mixed bag of friends at her wedding.  Sandy is Canadian.  We taught in the same school when I was first hired in the Abbotsford School District and became what would become life-long friends.  I got my first rice cooker after a conference to Kelowna when we stayed with her family.  Her family showed shock and dismay that I was cooking substandard rice in a pot and that my mother had used minute rice when I was growing up.  This catalyzed me into action.  It wasn’t until her Dad died that I learned the impact of the Japanese Internment policy by the Canadian government had on his life.  Japanese internment was not just a historical misstep that could be apologized away.  Sandy does not identify as BIPOC.  We can hypothesize about why that is the case.  However, if the label restricts rather than uplifts, is it helpful to her?

The death of George Floyd represents an inequity in how people are treated by police in the United States.  The high rate of incarceration and death by capital punishment in the United States needs to be questioned.  Systemic racism needs to be addressed.  The concept of white privilege needs to explore and understood.  How the conversation is navigated matters.  Who are the voices that we listen to?  How do we make sense of the anger?  How do we respect the fact that not everyone has the same understanding?  The same experience?

Ibram X Kendi has been masterful in opening up this conversation to all people.  I first listened to his audiobook, How to Be An Anti-racist, and loved being able to hear what he emphasized during the reading of his text.  However, I found that there was so much depth, I needed to read the book, to develop a deeper understanding.  It is a book that is a call to action.  He challenges us to more beyond a passive stance of “I’m not a racist” to an active stance of being an anti-racist working towards equity and justice for all human beings.

Shame on Me:  An Anatomy of Race and Belonging by Tessa McWatt opens up a whole new layer of conversation.    “I know from stories that my ancestry of Scottish, English, French, Portuguese, Indian, Amerindian, African, and Chinese forebears. And there are rumours of hidden bloodlines – that possible French Jew.” (p.17).  Her book takes us through her journey to discover who she is.  An identity that is defined by blurred lines.  She challenges us to create a “new language of belonging”.  It too is a call to action.

Joe Truss and his online sessions on Dismantling White Supremist culture have challenged my thinking.  Although I believe it is my role is to define the work I need to do, he poses many good questions.  Who do I feel affinity with?  The first session I attended with a group of colleagues.  Affinity groups were defined by skin colour.  The colleagues that I identified as my people, did not have a chance of being in my affinity group.  I had the wrong skin colour.  When I questioned it, my facilitator, Shane Safir, introduced the many difference types of affinity groups we can be part of.  I am not questioning the merit of affinity groups based on colour for creating safe spaces for people.  It has just made me question who is in my affinity group.

As I have many circles of friends, I have many affinity groups.  But the lines are blurred.  I remember being challenged by a woman in one feminist group because I was wearing red lipstick.  Apparently, my affinity group on that day was feminists who wear lipstick.  A cousin expressed surprise that I was a good mother and worked because I wanted to.  My affinity group is apparently mothers who value their career and love being a Mom.  Being a proud Canadian born in California.  A sun worshiper who loves snow sports.  A person who has been underestimated based on appearance and gender but has white privilege.  How and with whom we feel affinity is very personal and sometimes situational.

I understand that friendship does not always serve as an entry point to breaking down systemic racism.  It can define belonging in new ways.  Perhaps it is the mindset that leaves us open to empathizing with others or trying to understand a different perspective and work for meaningful change.  Perhaps it is the willingness to adopt the stance that we may not have all of the answers or the right to tell others what they need to do.  Ultimately, I am anti-racist because I believe my actions matter.  There is no either-or way of approaching the work.  There are many perspectives coming from people living with many blurred lines.  Taking the time to listen to stories from people coming from many contexts with blurred lines is what will result in the will to try to share power and form new understandings.  There is no one right answer.  There is no one path.  There is not one talker and one listener.  The work requires reciprocity.  If we really want to move beyond tolerance and beyond representation toward belonging, it will require the full participation and engagement from people crossing all kinds of affinity groups in listening, speaking out and taking action towards equity and justice. 

School Community Building at Livingstone Elementary

COVID- 19 has presented many challenges for educators.  As we have become more comfortable with Health and Safety protocols, attention has shifted to building school community.  Assemblies and whole school activities have always been a way of bringing students together to develop of sense of belonging.  enjoy performances, celebrate events and share learning.  This year we have tried to replicate this experience online.   Ms. Liang has booked performances that classes can access online for a given time frame.  Ms. Presley led the charge in sharing student learning during the Winter Show N’Share.  We have brought the students together for online assemblies on the All Students TEAM created in September.  The performance aspect has been strong but the back and forth exchange of information has been lacking.  Until today.

As a staff, we did decide to carve out the first Monday of each month at 2:15 pm for a whole school assembly.  Division 1 students shared the Indigenous acknowledgment and I talked about the importance of the place where we work, learn and play on our daily lives.   Living in a temperate rainforest impacted the lives of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh people, just as it impacts ours.  Never has this been more evident at David Livingstone Elementary, as during Covid.  Everyday is an outdoor day.  Our provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, tells us it is the safest route for recess, lunch, and physical education lessons involving high cardio activity.  Students now have a greater appreciation of dressing for the weather and are expanding the possibilities for outdoor plan on rainy days.  We also have learned why cedar was so integral in culture of Coast Salish people.

The success of our assembly yesterday was in the staff and student sharing.  Students reported classroom learning including vinegar and soda explosions, financial explorations of cold coins, boxes of letters, Valentine’s Day art featuring the colour white, space stations, physical and chemical change, changes states of water and studies of stories.  Then just as it started to hail, then sleet, then snow. Div. 3 unmuted and shared the hero journey from the story Frozen.  Perfect timing!  Perfect moment!

Mr. Bring is sponsoring student council this year and shared some of the events planned for us by our student leaders.  Friday, February 19th will be “Blast from the Past” Day.  With my big hair, the 80’s will be my pic.  It will be fun to see the clothing and hairstyles or days gone by.  It is also a way to share a common activity and admire it from afar. 

Student Council is also promoting Pink Shirt Day.  Leading up to February 24th students will be discussing how three Canadian boys were pivotal in kicking off a movement that has helped us rethink about people’s right to be themselves, how bullying happens and our role in stopping it.  Students are encouraged to wear a pink shirt.  Teachers, SSA’s, the supervision aids, the custodians, the Office Assistants, the Spare Time Coordinator, our Director of Instruction, and I will all be wearing the CKNW shirts with “Lift Each Other Up” printed on it for Pink Shirt Day and periodically throughout the rest of the year.  Proceeds support local anti-bullying programs that teach empathy, compassion, and kindness.  We want kids to understand their shared role in defining who they want to be in the world, supporting each other across cohorts, and in the larger community. 

Shirt days have also been a positive way of facilitating group activity and stimulating conversation, largely about social justice issues that are so closely tied to social studies curriculum, and social emotional learning.  Terry Fox shirts came out en mass for the annual Terry Fox Run.  Our favourite Canadian hero had lots to teach us, even though we participated at different times of the day in cohorts.  On Orange Shirt day, students learned about residential schools, and the learning shared with us by our Indigenous people.  Black Shirt Day refocused our attention on the purpose and meaning of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms.  February 24th, Anti-Bullying Day is on the horizon.  Another opportunity to understand that what we say and do matters. And to “Lift each other up.”

My first effort to build student community online in March was met with marginal success.  I would video-tweet out a message to students from various places to connect with students via the Twitter feed on the school web.  I was never  satisfied that I had managed to connect with our students.  I have had more success with building community on the Ms. Froese Reads channel of YouTube.  As a lover of books, reading and sharing books is already a well established part of my life.  Literature provides the opportunity for us to walk new paths, empathize with the main characters, and learn about ourselves.  I have been sharing my favourites and many of the library purchases, carefully curated by Mr. Muress, our librarian.  The books celebrate the different faces, experiences, and possibilities. 

Emily’s Idea was the picture book read last week.  Many classes of students are using the template and colouring a paper doll chain of themselves and two family members or friends.  The paper doll chain of our students with different types and colours of hair, different colour and shapes of eyes, various shades of skin colour, and  styles of dress, all joining hands through-out the library and the hallways. 

Students are also invited to make book recommendations for their peers and Mr. Muress to provide input into library purchases. The link to the form to share books is shared on the All Students TEAM under the Book Recommendation channel.  A list will be collated with all of the student recommendations.

We continue to look for ways to include parents more in our online school community.  PAC Meetings have all been online since March.  Access to the school has been limited.  Parents do have online access to the All-Students TEAM through their child.  This was most widely accessed during the Winter Show & Share.  Some parents continue to enjoy the regular tweets about school activities and resources that are available to parents.  I am also trying to write more blog posts to provide parents with specifics around instruction and reporting.  My recent post, Reporting Student Achievement in British Columbia, provides parents with an overview of recent changes in reporting in British Columbia and what they can expect in the formal written reports being issued in January.  I’m looking for more ideas, if you have suggestions.    

Pining for Tradition

No Chipper Event at Kits Beach 2021

It makes sense that in light of all of the cancellations of events throughout the city, that the tree chipping events down at Kits Beach would also be cancelled during COVID.  But I didn’t want it to be.  We have so many happy memories of chipper events with kids, hot chocolate and even roasted wieners.  When my husband reported that the event was going ahead, I too wanted to believe.  He had checked on the internet.  It must be so.  Social distancing could be possible. 

Off we went with our exceptionally dry, consequently very light tree.  Like many other Vancouverites, our tree went up the earliest date ever.  The lights, the decorations in trees outside as well as inside were the things we could control this year.  It was imperative to grab some festive spirit. 

Off we embarked in the pouring rain, each of us with one end of the tree to participate in the annual Lion’s Club fundraising event.  We would ensure muddy paths would be covered in fresh chips of fragrant Christmas trees.  There were a few clues, it was not to be.  We were the only people carrying a tree.  There was no sound of a chipper echoing through the neighbourhood. 

The question of what to do with a dried-out tree, brought both of us to the exact same point in time.  The first Christmas that we celebrated together.  It was Spring and the discarded Christmas tree was still on the smaller of the decks in Brad’s party apartment that he shared with Dave.  This was the apartment where the residual of a good party was an eviction notice.  These were the years that we believed that the West End should be reserved for those people anxious to celebrate what life had to offer in downtown Vancouver. 

My very practical suggestion was to put one garbage bag over the top of the tree and one over the bottom so we wouldn’t drop needles in the hallway en route to the garbage bin.  These were the days before the green bin pick up.  Brad had other ideas.  His love for Science and Math and belief in his physical prowess produced a far more expedient option.  He could simply pick up the tree and throw it like a javelin towards the garbage bin in the back lane.  His strength and the momentum from the mass of the tree would allow it to sail to the garbage bin.  His story is that a breeze picked up and thwarted his plan.  After all it made it past MOST of the tiered balconies.  However, the thump on that last balcony was followed by the frantic sliding door being thrown open.  We both sunk down along with our backs to the wall and didn’t breathe.  Mission completed. 

Brad’s suggestion yesterday was to hold the tree high in the air and act like we were part of the end of 2020 celebratory parade.  Instead, we carried the tree back home to contemplate what to do with the dried-out Christmas tree.  Fortunately for the neighbours, we are older, wiser, and living on the ground floor.

Treading Gently in 2021

Stanley Park path from Prospect Point

The process of writing New Year’s Resolutions has a different feeling this year.  Yet, in honour of my mother, who was always striving for better, I feel compelled to maintain the tradition.  Although we have said good riddance to 2020, we are still left with the continued fallout of the global pandemic.  That fallout seems to be largely fear based.  Some of the fear is related directly to COVID-19.  Some of the fears have been triggered by repercussions of sickness, job loss and various levels of quarantine or other “safety” measures.  Some pre-existing fears have been magnified.  The reactions are pervasive, diverse and sometimes quite intense.  They cross ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, and politics. 

In this context, we have no idea of the stresses and feelings evoked by this pandemic.  We are blatantly aware that some jobs are more prone to the daily stress.  However, we don’t know the path that others are walking.  It seems that the only New Year’s Resolution that matter in 2021 is: Tread gently.

Right now, we don’t know what people are dealing with.  We do know that COVID and other illnesses, death (related or unrelated to COVID), job loss or changes, underemployment, family breakdown, isolation or constant togetherness, and boredom are impacting the mental and physical health of the people we meet each day and ourselves.  So has not being able to come together for joyful celebrations of the holiday season, engagements, marriages, and the closure of memorial services. We also know that what people show us often does not reveal how things are going for them.  How vulnerable that people allow themselves to be is determined by several factors.  It could be trust in the relationship or a desire to cope with the unimaginable by distancing.  People do what they need to do. 

Never before have we seen the immediate need for empathy.  It is not easy to consider things from another perspective, particularly when faced with aggressiveness or unkindness.  Sometimes it may mean just taking a step back.  That may be all you have in reserve at that given time.  The pervasive call for kindness is not just a platitude.  It is the only positive way to navigate through this difficult terrain.  I have been the recipient of many kindnesses from colleagues, my school community, family and friends during this pandemic.  It is often the determining factor of a “survival mode” or a joyful day. 

The call to Tread Gently also directly pertains to how we treat ourselves.  There continues to be a need to reflect on our actions and apologize for reactions, as required to maintain relationships.  However, I think we also need to give ourselves a break.  Now is not the time to reprimand ourselves up for what we haven’t done.  Maybe a binge watch of Netflix is the best we can do on some evenings.  Or maybe going to bed at 8:30 pm is the answer if we’re that tired.  Maybe our body is telling us we need to attend to go for a walk or stretch.  Maybe the purchase of that very expensive coffee machine is worth it, if it results in joy with that first morning sip. 

How we interact with each other and how we treat ourselves, matters now more than even.  Seemingly small actions have a big impact, much like a tiny pebble causing multiple waves in a still lake. We could hold the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back or adds a ray of hope.  Tread gently.

The Downside of Perfection

My father is a retired neurosurgeon who had a brilliant career.  He was a slave to his work, and he emerged from a little boy who could only speak German when he arrived in a Canada in 1948, to a doctor and published author with status, power, money and privilege.  His dream.

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Thomas Edison

I grew up with my father quoting Thomas Edison at every report card time and littering it through every summer visit and many long-distance phone calls.   Perfection was an imperative for him.  

Aspiring for perfection has some merit.  It can allow a vision to play out in your mind that can bring amazing results and the “big win”.  It can teach a commendable work ethic.  However, the flip side is it can also be debilitating.  My stepmother always recounts the story of sitting down to write letters to our mother in summer.  I would sit down and get my ideas down on the page and have absolutely no concern about spelling errors or a lack of punctuation.  When I first started blogging and she found a spelling error, she commented that I must be SO embarrassed.  I still wasn’t.  I learned that spell-checker doesn’t always work.  My sister, being plagued with being the first born, took hours completing her letter and would have holes in the page from eraser marks.  For her, it was a painful endeavour.

The part that Thomas Edison is missing in his well quoted words, is the part about the intrigue that comes with being fascinated by a question.  For Edison, I believe that this was intuitive knowledge.  He entertained the “What if” questions.  Inquiry was not an attempt to demonstrate genius.  Inquiry was letting his mind dance around the possibilities.  It takes time.  It takes patience.  It takes a belief that you can.  

In education, we frame this process in a myriad of ways:  Creative problem-solving; Deductive reasoning; divergent thinking; the inquiry process; task engagement; daydreaming.  The list goes on.  The recent rewrite of the curriculum in British Columbia comes close to describing what we are trying to accomplish in the education of our children.  We want students to graduate with the dispositions and skills to creatively engage and succeed in a world that is changing at unprecedented rates.  We want a high level of achievement that is measured in meaningful ways and inspires further investigation and maybe even genius.

In order for this to happen, we need to help people to change how they view children, adults, and themselves.  This requires a significant shift away from deficit models most of us have grown up with.  People are not defined by what they can’t do.  They are respected for their contributions and efforts are acknowledged.  Perfection is not the standard.  Growth is the expectation.  Lifelong learning is recaptured as a concept of identifying areas for growth and continuing to learn over the course of a lifetime.  

As a faculty associate at Simon Fraser University, I loved the conversations that proceeded the classroom observations with students in the process of completing their degree in Education.  They were all about what the student wanted me to look for to help them improve their practice.  I love this conversation with teachers.  The process is defined and for the learner.  I was involved in the revision of the Standards for principals and vice-principals in British Columbia.  It is the same process of supporting the learner to improve.  It presumes that the learner wants to improve.

I have enrolled Kindergarten to Grade 8 students in the public system.  I have taught summer school to secondary English Language Learners.  I’ve taught undergraduate students at the university level.  I’ve taught practicing teachers in Vancouver and in China.  I have worked as colleagues with teachers in three school districts and as a vice-principal / principal in the Vancouver School District.  I have attended professional development with educators from all over the world.  Generally, learners in all of these contexts want to improve.  The biggest block to learning is the belief that identifying growth areas will be used against you.  In contexts where a deficit model exists, perfection is the gold standard.  In contexts where a growth model exists, identifying areas for growth is a precursor to learning.

In British Columbia, the successful implementation of the revised curriculum will require the adoption of reporting practices that support learning.  Identifying areas of strength is only one side of the equation. Identifying areas which require more repetition and practice, and ways to support this learning, is the key to future development of the learner.  The aversion of many educators to letter grades or sliding scales comes out of the fact that it does not provide a complete picture that supports future learning.  Every reporting period should be a celebration of growth and an honest discussion of the plan for moving forward in the learning process.  

In the COVID-19 world, I have been involved in the question with my staff and colleagues of how to build communities when students are separated into cohorts.  My last attempt at a school wide assembly.  All students learning at school and at home were on the All-Students TEAM.  My intro worked.  Division 1 student acknowledgement of Indigenous lands from their classroom worked.  I shared my PowerPoint.  The embedded perfect clip by Canadian students illustrating the importance of Human Rights and setting the stage for Human Rights Day on December 10th.  I played it from the link in the PowerPoint.  Didn’t download it first or share on my screen.  Kids heard it but didn’t see it.  Some teachers copied the link and played it.  Epic fail.  Definitely a D grade if I was writing the report card on it.  I went on PA and apologised.  Shortly after, I received this email from a Grade 3 / 4 class:

“Division 7 is really proud of you for being brave and trying something new even if it didn’t work.”

So not actually an epic fail.  We are all a work in progress.  I met many of the criteria for success and I have learned what I need to do next time.  These kids jolted me out of the deficit model of thinking that I grew up with.  We have had many laughs on the playground about epic fails and what we learned.  I can provide lots of these stories.  For the Winter Show N’ Share, I pre-recorded everything so the hard work of students and the amazing production led by our amazing music teacher, Ms. Presley, and the slick presentation by Mr. Carruthers would be the central focus for our school community.  It was perfect enough!  For the January online assembly, I have a plan.

Keep Going for Equity and Justice

Creating a space where each member of a community not only feels welcome but valued and respected is a gargantuan challenge.  I have been welcomed into spaces where there are is an unwritten code, or set of expectations, that you must identify and comply with if you do not want to fall into disfavour and subsequently have the welcome withdrawn.  All too often the rules are apparent after the fact.  Or perhaps, they are never are discerned.  Job places, schools, places of worship, and community gathering spots face the same challenge of how to create spaces where people with diverse cultures, belief systems, family structures and appearance can come together in a context where everyone feels valued and in the words of Marlo Thomas – free to be. 

I have lost heart that any set of rules will provide all the answers. The Declaration of Human Right and Freedoms was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948 and enshrined the rights and freedoms of all human beings. Subsequent human and civil rights law have codified many of these basic rights. We have had time for full implementation. And yet, in wealthy countries the #MeToo #BlackLivesMatter #IndigenousLivesMatter echo the cries of people waiting for even basic rights to be extended to them. The citing or rules, finger pointing, and defining the work that others need to do, breeds anger and resentment rather than a collective, coordinated effort to do better.

If we are going to make a difference in the quest to create respectful spaces, we are going to need to capture the imaginations of the people within organizations whether it’s a workplace, school, club or social organization.  Co-existing in a space does not generate a welcoming or generous climate.  We need curiosity and empathy.  The kind of curiosity that inspires us to want to get to know each other, the patience to listen to someone’s story and the development of empathy.

The best place to start teaching this process is in schools, where we already have students brimming with curiosity, not afraid to ask questions, and ready to dive into the learning.  I have been inspired by Patrick Stewart’s reading Shakespeare’s sonnets and Michelle Obama’s story time online.  As part of the process of building community in our school, I decided to put a weekly story on YouTube for my school.  For my first book, I chose Fauja Singh Keeps on Going to dovetail with our recent learning about Diwali. 

I gathered the book, my tripod, my iPhone, and headed off to read the book to a Grade 5 class.  After I discovered there was too much noise and the student response to the book, I headed off to read to the Grade 3 class I was covering.   It is a newly published book by Simran Singh with illustrations by Baljinder Kaur that bring additional insight into Sikh culture.  Fauja Singh is 108 years old and will live on in my heart.  He experiences physical adversity, racism, loss, and becomes the first 100-year-old person to finish a marathon.  Fauja demonstrates resilience, perseverance and grace in moving forward to become an inspiration for all of us.  Before I went off to read with students, I called one of the parents in my school community to make sure I was pronouncing Fauja’s name correctly.  Turns out Bindy interviewed Fauja when she was doing the research for her doctoral degree and was able to provide a great personal story to bring additional insight to our students.    

My 15-minute YouTube time limit for Ms. Froese Reads, didn’t allow for me to include the fascinating conversation with students.  All of us immediately made the connections with Terry Fox, the Canadian hero who demonstrated the same kind of perseverance and integrity as Fauja.  The image of Canadians running beside Fauja was reminiscent of people running beside Terry to encourage him along his route and it made us proud as Canadians.  The racist treatment of Fauja in New York post 9/11 was a focus of both conversations.  A Grade 5 girl with white skin spoke of her embarrassment about people being racist, even though she wasn’t there.  A Grade 3 boy with brown skin gave an impassioned and well-informed speech about how Donald Trump and how his racist beliefs are taking the United States in the wrong direction.  These kids heard Fauja’s story.  They understand fairness.  They empathize.  They were inspired by Fauja’s mother ‘s message that “Today is a chance to do your best.”  How do we inspired everyone to take a step back and proceed with kindness on a path to equity and justice?

We are at another junction in history where people are pausing to consider our direction.   Certainly, it will take a willingness to listen more and to broaden our perspectives if that is to be a path towards equity and justice.  The route of how to get to a more social just society is widely disputed.  I still hold tight to the  principles laid out in the United Nations Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  I believe the process of continuing to articulate those principles in a Children’s Charter, an Indigenous Charter, and a Canadian Charter were important to further strengthen these basic rights and freedoms.  I will continue to live them and to teach them.  I believe in laws and their fair application to provide justice.  I also believe in mandatory training to outline expectations in the workplace and in public institutions.  Yet, they are not enough. 

How do we inspire curiosity and a desire to do better?  How do we break down the hierarchical and social structures that inhibit people from sharing their stories with the people in their schools, jobs, places of worship, and the cities we live in?  And how do we inspire people to want to empathize?  How do we encourage people to give each other the benefit of the doubt and not immediately assume the worst intention?  Any environment that creates a fear of making mistakes, is destined to become entrenched in camps.  Silence follows fear.  Growth requires a collaborative effort to understand. Authors like Margaret Atwood, Wab Kinew and Yaa Gyasi have the ability to shift perspectives within a few hundred pages.  Children are responsive to well written books with diverse perspectives, particularly when followed with engaging discussion.  Sitting face to face in a room and learning about someone’s journey is magic.  As a member, then community fieldworker for Amnesty International, I had the opportunity to listen to the stories or many people who had been imprisoned and tortured for their religion, ethnicity, sexual preference, political belief or relationship to someone else being persecuted and intimidated.  They were stories or hope, survival and gratitude.  They were inspirational and strengthened my resolve to work for social justice.   During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, hearts were broken listening to traumatic stories of residential school survivors  and family breakdown of our Indigenous people.  It brought a part of Canadian history, omitted in textbooks, to the forefront of our collective consciousness as a country.  Anyone involved in the process has a greater level of empathy and understanding of the complexity and importance of the path to reconciliation with our Indigenous people. Like Fauja Singh, we need to keep going until basic rights and freedoms are part of the lived experience of all people and we don’t even have to ask – Do you feel valued?  It will be a given.

Imagination in Leadership

Imagination has factored into my life in a myriad of significant ways. It is largely responsible for many of my happiest memories in childhood, teaching, and parenting. The role of imagination in my leadership has been more obtuse. Is there room for imagination in the many management responsibilities and competing priorities of principals and vice-principals? Although I know in my heart it has to loom large, I have been struggling to articulate it.

When I was young, developing the imaginative ability of children was not a priority goal.  School was task oriented.  I remember my Grade 5 teacher closing the curtains so we would focus on copying the notes from the board rather than the snow falling outside.  I spent the morning staring at the curtains, imagining what it would look like at recess.  You did the work and then the recess or lunch bell rang, and we spilled out onto the playground.  The holes in the chain link fence meant that play easily extended into the forested areas bordering the school.  After school, we were set free to run with the neighbourhood kids and be home for dinner.  My bike was another appendage of my body and it took me off to explore, build forts, and discover.

My parents’ divorce made travel part of my early life. First by car. Then by plane. I learned there were lots of places to explore and lots of different ways to live with different expectations and rules of engagement. We were still free to roam the Hollywood Hills and the wilds of the Sierra Nevadas. Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm provided a window into how adults can structure imaginative play.

As a first-year teacher, every Friday the Shape of the Day was titled Friday Fun Day with coloured chalk and large swirling letters.  It was a day devoted to engaging students in learning in wild and wonderful ways.  My Grade 2 students actively participated in planning our explorations.  That was the year that Krista Pera hand sewed a shiny fabric bauble at Christmas for my tree and demonstrated that anything was possible if you created space for it.  Inquiry brought a structure to my teaching practice that allowed me and my students to go after finding the answers to interesting questions.  Imagination was a habit of mind that I brought to my practice and continued in my teaching of elementary, secondary ELL, and post secondary.

There is a comradarie between teachers that exists in many schools that makes teaching rewarding and filled with lifelong friends.  I was fortunate to have many colleagues that would spark ideas that became great learning adventures for my students and me.  I also had many enthusiastic colleagues who were willing to ask questions and play with ideas.  The strong professional development wing of the BCTF and supportive principals provided funding and many opportunities for distributed leadership to allow our imaginations to flourish. 

As a parent, my first born led the charge into imaginative play. His grasp of the possibilities without any concern for safety, took me to new places. How do you create a safe context and an opportunity to explore was my quest. His sister arrived and followed his lead with abandon. I walked into her room one day to witness her brother’s scaffolded instructions for how to escape from her crib. He assumed the role of Batman. She had no alternative but to be Robin. Just as my sister and I had been many moons ago ( to quote my mother). The Dynamic Duo wanted challenge and adventure. Imagination was not taught, but spaces were created for it. And yes, sometimes they included trips to the Emergency ward. As they grew older, outlets for creativity were formalized through many sets of lessons, and classes as Place Des Arts. Imagination was not only part of free play, but also expressed in clay, paint, crayon, music, and pencil. For our son, even biking and snowboarding became acts of imagination. It became as much a part of the process as muscle memory.

Last Sunday, my husband and I jumped on our bikes and did our standard route around Stanley Park.  En route home, a car stopped at a red light on a busy street, suddenly decided to make a quick right turn to avoid the light and didn’t notice me stopped in the bike lane beside him.  In my peripheral vision, I saw him and muscle memory from years of trail riding and riding along logs in bike playgrounds kicked in.  I jumped off the other side of my bike while he drove into the front tire of my bike and knocked it down.  It was a habit.  I learned long ago on my Brody Mountain bike that sometimes, you just need to bail.  I think that’s what it’s like with imagination.  The more you think divergently and aspire to problem solve creatively; the more opportunities present themselves.  It becomes a habit to think wide and consider possibilities. 

Organizational skills and problem-solving ability are required parts of the job of principals and vice principals.  It is the foundational piece for administrators, as classroom management is to teachers.  Imagination is not a prerequisite or even a standard expectation. Professional development, diploma programs, graduate work, training for faculty associates, and teaching teachers in China allowed me to further develop my skill level in tandem with my vision of possibilities for learners.  Imagination is required to envision what education could be beyond a current reality.  It is present in those administrators who are able to formulate a vision of the possibilities.  That vision may reach beyond the specific context and limitations that exist.  If being imaginative has become a habit in the principal or vice-principal, it kicks in just like muscle memory.   It needs to be fed by hope in order to flourish.  If we hold tight to the fact that we have the capacity to make a positive difference in the world, we can enlist our imagination to aspire to bring a possibility to life.  And if we are lucky, the spark will ignite the imagination of others.