A breakthrough moment

polar-starOn December 10th we boarded the ice-breaker Polar Star and we began our two day crossing of the Beagle Channel and the Drake Passage that will bring us to the Antaractic Peninsula.  We’ve heard that there can be some pretty wild water that we’re going to traverse; waves over 30 feet high are not uncommon.  I did a a practice run wearing a sea-sickness patch while getting ready for this trip; will let you know when we’re back how that worked.

Meanwhile, I had an experience a few days ago that left me grinning and saying: “well, I couldn’t have done that three weeks ago!” 

cinemaOn Sunday mornings, about once a month during the school year (you see, once a teacher always a teacher) I go, with my friend Linda, to Reel Talk.  This is a screening series that features films selected by folks connected with the Toronto International Film Festival and it’s an opportunity to see films which might never otherwise be shown in Toronto.  There’s coffee and muffins at 9, the film starts at 9:30, and following the film there’s an open forum discussion with a variety of guests including filmmakers, critics, and academics.  Last month we saw an incredible film called Kirschblüten – Hanami movie-camera (a German-Japanese film – there’s a trailer here if you’d like to catch a glimpse) which explored relationships between parents, children and their dreams.  This month the film that we saw was called The Wave movie-camera1 which is a compelling German film that premiered at Sundance earlier this year.  It’s about a high school teacher who sets up an experiment to demonstrate to his students what life is like under a dictatorship, but it spins horribly out of control when a social unit with a life of its own takes over.  The film is actually based on an experience led by history teacher Ron Jones at Cubberly High School in Palo Alto, California in 1967.  In both this new film and a film made about the same story in 1981 movie-camera2 we are reminded how easy it can be to move from being decent and good people to giving up our freedoms and democracy because we are afraid and need to confirm – to ourselves – that we’re part of the group that holds real power.

This is something I’ve worried about since 9/11 when, it seems, many countries – and their citizenry – were willing to trade off freedom and liberty for the illusion of security.  To think that we – in the US, in Canada, and I suspect in many other democratic nations that apparently believe in human rights – have been able to march backwards into a time when people could be arrested and detained without charges and without legal representation is horrifying.  The parallels between what we’ve been witnessing here over the last number of years and the introduction of the Nuremberg Laws in Germany in 1835 have certainly horrified me.  The first Nuremberg Law (The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour) decreed who could, and who could not marry.  The second law made clear distinctions between the way laws would apply to Aryans and Non-Aryans.  As each law was introduced, and no public uprising followed, the energy to continue down that road was fed.  I can’t help but worry – and I’ve had this discussion with several groups of students – that if we’ve all sat quietly by while watching the weak and marginalized in our societies lose rights, while laws were passed which enabled the rule of law to be compromised … well, where does this all lead us?  Why don’t we resist? 

Oops – I’ve drifted off into something that I have a great passion for.  Let me get back to Sunday morning and the film The Wave.  Following the screening of the film there was a discussion led by an educator who uses drama to support learning.  One of the first comments made by the audience raised the question as to whether or not our schools were teaching kids to think on their own and not just go along with group-lightbulbthink or group-action.  The facilitator said that she thought we did, indeed, encourage individuality in our schools.  I was utterly shocked to hear her say that!  I sat quietly through another four or five Qs and As.  And then, as if a giant lightbulb had suddenly turned on, I realized that I was no longer working for my former employers and so was no longer restricted in publically saying only things that would support the work of the Ministry.  For soooooooooooooo long I have railed against the way we’re moving in education, and for all of that time I’ve had to mostly keep my own beliefs under wraps.  No longer the case.  Hesitantly I raised my hand to make a comment.  My heart was pounding as the microphone moved toward me and was put into my hand.  “Yes?”, the moderator said.

 I started by introducing myself and stating that I taught a graduate course in Social Justice in Education … sort of establishing some credentials for what I was about to say.  Noting that I respectfully disagreed with the speaker, I said that I believed that: “As long as we – as parents, as grandparents, as aunts, uncles or friends – as long as we were more concerned with standardized test scores than how our children are educated to “be” as adults; as long as we don’t make sure that schools are teaching students how to live a life and not just how to earn a living; as long as we’re unwilling to challenge our schools to do better … until that happens I don’t see things getting better at all.”  We talk about the importance of individuality – of individuals engaging in critical thinking and problem solving – but in the end with our focus on standardized testing and the importance we give to those test scores we’re actually modelling something very different.  We’ve all gotten onto the bandwagon of a standardized curriculum that’s taught to all students who will then take standardized tests and if they can answer the way they’re supposed to then we’ll give their school a high standardized mark and maybe even a little award or plaque for the front hallway.  I wish that I’d added to what I said that it was time, I believe, to figure out what we really need to do in schools – in schools in this century! – so that our kids grow up to be adults who can get along, work collaboratively and respectfully, solve problems creatively, be able to love and make commitments and follow through on them, and value people over things.  Our children – I think – deserve no less than this.  There was applause as I handed the microphone back.

As Linda and I left the theatre that day a number of people came up to me and thanked me for speaking out.  My heart was still racing.  Three weeks ago I couldn’t not have said what whisper1I said in that very public place.  Doors have opened to me.  I feel like a critic/censor that’s been sitting on my shoulder whispering “shhhh” for a long time has also retired … at least from my particular shoulder.  Doors have opened.  Now I need to spend some time really thinking through what it is I want my voice to be; my new voice.  The one that really belongs to me.

The day after seeing this film I had coffee (tea actually) with my friend Barbara and she asked me what I really did want to do now that I was retired and could choose a new path.  She reminded me of how easy it would be to flutter from thing to thing but perhaps it would be better to really choose my new path.  Choose my voice.  Hhmm … that was the name of a curriculum resource I developed a few years ago … Choose Your Voice.  What goes around comes around!  Lots to contemplate.

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2 responses to “A breakthrough moment

  1. Sylvia – your contemplation of how to best use your voice in a new, autonomous way got me thinking:

    What’s a voice if left unheard? Misunderstood? Muted – by the noise of hegemonic ideas?

    It is a wonderful thing you contemplate – how to use your voice in your new place in life.

    I think the best voices are the ones that connect people by appealing to their initial way of seeing things and then challenging them to see a new way. Powerful voices transform perspective.

    It takes courage to be that voice; and humility to understand what it takes to connect, first, with where people stand.

    Let us know how you shape your voice, Sylvia, so we can connect and transform. Exciting times…!

  2. The silence of Antarctica gave me lots of time to think about voice. It also left me thinking that silence is a kind of voice; I need to take some quiet time now to think that through some more. The voices that echo back to me through the comments that are made on the blog are so important too. It is through this kind of interaction that I think I will figure this all out … with thanks to you of course.

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