Learn to Row

August 20, 2014

This summer my family enrolled in a Learn to Row program. It was a wonderful opportunity to do something together as a family, get some fresh air and exercise and, most importantly, learn something new.

We spent a few hours on land, watched a video and then headed out to the water under the watchful eye of two volunteers. Having watched Olympic and high school rowing and having spent a considerable amount of time in a canoe, I must admit that I was excited and confident about the next steps. After all, it was just putting in your oar and pushing water. I was placed in a single racing shell and within the first five minutes I was in the water; my first lesson was humility!

Since that first lesson we have rowed quite a number of times and we have learned a great deal. It is a sport that seems so simple, yet is very complex. The last time that I rowed I spent the entire time trying to figure out what to do with my hands. Our instructors have ranged in age from 15 to 85. They were all so encouraging, patient, and understanding as we gradually learned the technique of the sport.

What has been exciting for me is that I have learned much more than a new sport. I have come to appreciate more about learning. Learning takes time and patience; it is a journey that for some might come easily and for others there are bumps in the road. When you fall out of the boat it means that you are trying something new; it is just as important to get back into the boat right away and try again. The starting point of learning is identifying the gap between where you think you are and where reality exists. Having that knowledge allows you to become more self-directed in your learning and I believe that learning becomes more powerful. The relationship between teacher and student begins with understanding and communication. Both parties need to be invested and committed to ensure that progress and success may happen. And maybe, most importantly, it is never too late or early to learn or to teach. Finally our family has set a goal: a rowing race in early September. Whatever the result of the race, the journey has been challenging, fun, and rewarding; hopefully the same results will happen for your children this school year.

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Canoeing and Current Affairs

August 7, 2014

I returned about a week ago from my annual canoe trip to the Canadian Arctic with a group of friends. We have been paddling Arctic rivers for a number of years and always enjoy each others’ company, the majesty of the flora and fauna, and the knowledge that we are travelling in areas that very few Canadians have ever seen. We are completely out of contact and carry a satellite phone only for an emergency.

We had our usual challenges of significant white water, but through the years of working together, trusting each other, and talking through the roar of the cold water, we always get through unscathed. And we are willing to help each other across the portages, none of which are marked and are only lined with millions of mosquitoes. We understand that each member of the trip has strengths and weaknesses and through the support that we give each other we feel a sense of accomplishment.

As we were in the plane returning to Toronto and reading the newspapers, it seemed that the world had changed. The headlines screamed of the MH17 tragedy, fighting began in Gaza, and the escalation of the conflict in Syria.

I turned to one of our canoe party and said, “We should take all of the combatants, put them in a canoe, and tell them to paddle together for a week.” At the very least they would have to talk to one another, work together, understand perspective, and optimistically trust each other’s actions. Perhaps a naïve suggestion, but better than the chaos and human tragedy that we are now seeing.

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Boyhood

July 29, 2014

Last week I saw the movie Boyhood, a remarkable movie that was filmed over 12 years; if you are looking to spur family conversation this movie will do it. It not only traces the growth of a young boy, Mason, from the age of 7 to 18, but also examines the sea changes that happen within his family and his world during this journey.

Boyhood is more than just a coming of age movie; it is appealing on a number of different levels. We watch as Mason literally grows up through movie transitions that are subtle, but profound. Forever he looks at life through an inquiring lens, but always his lens. From the innocence of his early years through the stumbles of pre-teen and teen, to the beginning of a new era as he enters university, Mason shows us the power of the individual coming to grips with his relationship with the world and others, and his own sense of self.

It is through the eyes of Mason that we see the strength and foibles of his older sister and how his mother and father struggle with relationships as they nurture, cajole, lecture, and sigh through the growth of their children. Their dreams of a stable and “normal” family are weighted with the reality of relationships and finances as they struggle to define themselves. As parents we sometimes ask ourselves, “When will our children grow up?” The film shares with us the organic nature of this growth and as the years pass, how precious they are for adults and momentary they are for adolescents.

This is a very human picture that acknowledges the imperfect journey of families and individuals, the strength of family ties, and the triumphant resiliency of human nature. In what is an ordinary story we see the extraordinary. If there is one movie that you see this summer I would recommend Boyhood – it is very difficult to stop thinking of this film.

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The Backward Class

May 14, 2014

Recently the Hot Docs Film Festival premiered a number of films including The Backward Class. This is the extraordinary story that follows a grade 12 graduating class from Shanti Bhavan, a residential school in Bangalore, India. What makes this story extraordinary is not just the students and a dedicated group of teachers, but the whole foundation of the school.

Dr. Abraham George, a successful businessman who lives in New York, returned to his former home in Bangalore and was appalled at the lack of economic and social progress. Although the caste system was abolished in 1950, nothing had really changed. With his own funds he purchased a tract of land and built a residential school, recruiting 24 kindergarten age students. All of the students came from the “untouchable” class, deemed unworthy of educating by the Indian government. After 13 years of preparation, this group of students was to become the first Dalit students in India’s history to write the prestigious national Indian School Certificate graduating exams for high school.

As with most travels, this journey had not been a smooth one. The 2008 international financial crisis almost ruined Dr. George and nearly forced the closure of the school; since that time buildings were left incomplete, attracting good teachers became more problematic, and resources became scarcer. In order to allow his first class to graduate, George was forced to sell his house and tell his own children that he did not have the resources to send them to college in the United States. His vision of providing an exceptional education to a group that had been ostracized and oppressed by virtue of birth so that they might become role models and leaders in their community was in jeopardy. And now exams were upon them with historical expectations of parents, school patrons, educators, and the school’s founder.

This is the story of the immense will, dedication, and vision of the individual and the collective. It is the story of empowerment through education.

The results of this first graduating class are remarkable. Every student passed, all of them graduated from Indian post-secondary institutions and are working for investment companies such as Goldman Sachs and Ernst & Young. They have recognized their position and privilege by giving half of their earnings back to their families, a quarter to the school and a quarter for their own living.

Imagine the impact that our own graduates would have on the world if they did the same.

Shanti Bhavan’s mission is to adequately develop the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children of India’s “lowest caste” by providing them world class education and instilling globally shared values to enable them to aspire to careers and professions of their choice. A true private institution with a public purpose.

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Spring Baseball

March 28, 2014

Spring baseball started early for me this year. After a succession of coincidences our family found itself watching from the “sidelines” while a number of teenage Dominican Republic baseball players held their practice. It was not fancy.

The baseball diamond was regulation only in its dimensions. The clay, dirt infield was bumpy and uneven, the bags were in tatters, the outfield had grass a metre high and the fences consisted of old wire borrowed from a construction site. On the other side of the fence was the only roadway leading into the small town of Las Galeras. The batting cage was set in the woods and defined by old fishnets. Batting practice consisted of a player repeatedly hitting a large truck tire that two of his teammates propped up for him. The hardballs were soft from constant use and were covered in the red clay. There were only 20 in the bag.

The players’ equipment was in a similar state of disrepair. Baseball gloves were held together with shoelaces as the leather straps had broken; baseball cleats were clearly hand-me-downs. Surprisingly, everyone seemed to have their favourite team’s baseball cap – no Blue Jay caps to be seen!

For over three hours each day this group practised under the watchful eye and guidance of their two coaches. At the end of the practice one of the coaches, in his broken English, asked if our two sons and I would be interested in playing in a nine inning pick up game with this group the next day. We jumped at the opportunity.

What an afternoon! Our oldest son reached base and scored twice, though I can’t say that either our youngest son or I had such success. But that is not what I took away from the adventure. What a lesson in baseball – watching them play was magical: from soft hands and lightning throws, to homeruns that bounced off the highway into the woods to be retrieved by the rookies, to the constant laughter and banter that eclipsed every play.

And while they had very little, they had everything. It wasn’t about the best facility or equipment or the latest clothing – it was about the game – a game that they truly loved. And with that passion came dedication and a commitment to do your best. Perhaps that is why the Chicago Cubs and the Texas Rangers had already drafted three of the players.

As we enter into a new term, let’s remember why we play our team sports and the joy that it can bring.

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Olympics and Cross Country Skiing

February 13, 2014

What is it about cross-country skiing that brings out the best of the Olympic spirit?

Eight years ago to the day Sara Renner was skiing in the woman’s cross country ski relay with Beckie Scott. Renner was in front of the pack when she broke her ski pole and quickly slid to fourth place. From the sidelines a Norwegian coach leapt onto the course and handed Renner a ski pole. In the end the Canadians finished with a silver medal, the Norwegians fourth meaning that the Norwegian coach may have cost his team an Olympic medal.

On Tuesday, a Russian skier had fallen three times with a broken ski. The Canadian cross country ski coach, Justin Wadsworth, rushed out onto the course with an alternate ski, took off the skier’s broken ski, put on the new one and sent him on his way. Unfortunately, the story does not end with a Russian medal, but in an ironic twist the Canadian coach is Beckie Scott’s husband.

I somehow could not see a Canadian hockey player offering the same support to a Russian hockey player! As Wadsworth said, “We help because we know everyone works so hard… everyone wants fair results. I watched and could not understand why no one was helping him, not even the Russians.”

And so it is as educators that each and every day, we reach out, offer that ski, to allow each child to do their very best. It is about celebrating the effort, hard work, and allowing each individual to show their best. It is the true Olympic spirit.

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Olympics

January 31, 2014

Like most people I am looking forward to the start of the Olympics. I know that there has a been a great deal of press regarding the security and the amount of money that is being spent to ensure that these are, “The safest and the very best Olympics.”

The motto of the Olympics is higher, faster, stronger – the qualities that are to take the athlete to the podium. Although these are necessary elements, it seems to me that the qualities of character, courage, and perseverance are equally as important. Some of the most inspiring stories come from the most unlikely events and people.

In the last Olympics one of the most talented and physically fit athletes was Brian McKeever who qualified for the 50km cross-country ski race. But, McKeever can’t read and he can’t even drive a car; he has a degenerative eye disease. By the time he was 20 he went from being able to see from the back of a 400 student lecture room to not being able to read from the front row. McKeever has his peripheral vision and by moving his eyes the right way and looking about half a metre above someone’s head he can void the blind spot in his vision. He has gone off the track numerous times and crashed into trees at speeds more than 60 km per hour. But he sees enough. He sees more than most of us. Despite a serious shoulder injury and ill with the flu he won the Canadian Olympic qualifying event. At the last moment at the Vancouver games, he was pulled from the event, but for McKeever this was not a setback, it was an opportunity to make him better.

When you see the stories in the papers, I hope that you take a moment and look behind the headlines to the enduring qualities that make the Games so special.

Enjoy the magic of the Olympics – and know that magic does not just happen – it is created and earned with character, courage, and perseverance.

Reaching Out

January 14, 2014

I hope that everyone had a relaxing holiday and that blackouts and whiteouts were not too much of your focus.

A day after Christmas I was walking with our family, some friends, and our dogs down a “winter road.” At the end of the road we saw a car full of people who had relied more on GPS than visual and the car was stuck in a snowdrift. We tried as much as possible to get the car out, but to no avail. The people in the car told us that they had already called for help, and not to worry.

On our walk back out, we saw several trucks and cars drive to the end of the road and turn around, without stopping to help. Worried, that no one was coming, we gathered a chain and shovels and went back to help them out of the snowdrift. Eventually we managed to get the car free and send them on their way.

I found the whole situation discouraging. It was the day after Christmas and no one was willing to stop, reach out and help – isn’t that what this season is all about?

Then I started hearing stories from the Toronto ice storm: families hosting seasonal dinner for their neighbours, friends checking on neighbours’ houses, people driving down from Northern Ontario with generators and setting them up so that families could have heat, and Hydro employees working exceptional hours and being in tears when they could not help people. That is the Toronto that I want to live in – the world that I want to live in.

The Untouchables

November 30, 2013

A couple of weeks ago an elementary school in British Columbia banned all touching in response to the “outbreak of fighting” that was occurring amongst the children. Apparently the measure is not really a policy or a ban, just a “short term measure.” I am sure that the kindergarten students recognize the difference.

So, let’s imagine a part of the day of non-touching. Parents who are walking their children, hand in hand, must let go at the gates to the school. The welcoming teacher, instead of holding the student’s hand and helping them with knapsacks, must stand back and give instructions. When students see each other, instead of the hugs that usually take place, they must just stare each other down. During the class, the teacher cannot put a hand on a shoulder as an affirmation, give a “high-five” for a task very well done, or have a handshake of congratulations. And so the list goes on.

Touch is language in and of itself. We instinctively know how to use it, but it is a skill. And through touch we communicate multiple positive emotions: joy, love, gratitude, and sympathy. Touching and being touched is a way that helps us to feel appreciated and cared for. The first sense that develops in the womb is touch; the first language that a baby understands after being born is touch. Although we have many things in common with other mammals, human contact is the thing that makes us different and that makes us…human. Research has taught us that children who are held more turn into cooperative, well-adjusted, confident, and loving adults, not the other way around.

So, it is difficult to imagine a school that focuses on studies and appropriate social interactions banning one of the most important tools of relationship building – touching.

Values & Leadership

November 22, 2013

The other day while I was driving to school I was listening to a couple of “political pundits” discussing Toronto’s mayor. Both of them said, “Let’s put aside values and talk about the running of the city.” I nearly drove off the road.

One of the most important roles, and possibly the most critical role, of any leader is to provide a steady moral compass. Whether you are the Head of a school, teacher, parent, or head of a multi-national corporation this role should be part of your fabric. Whomever you are leading is looking to you to provide guidance; to being a role model. That guidance comes from within and is supported by institutional or societal values.

Guiding others responsibly must encompass an understanding of ones self. This means continually engaging in a reflective process of making sense of your relationship with others and with the world around you, and trusting that your influence will be positive. To be open to self-doubt, fear and questioning helps to keep one grounded.

Every school that I know has a stated set of values and there is an expectation that everyone in the community: students, staff, and parents live by those values – even when they have left the school. The values are reinforced as they are posted around the school, spoken about in assemblies, on the soccer pitch, on the stage, and in the classroom.

To say that you would run an organization without values is like saying you would sail a boat without a hull and sail. Values represent our structure, our engine to move us forward in making the right decisions – our compass. It is hard to see how city hall, or anywhere, could run without values.


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