Reframing for Our New Reality

Copyright 2020, Maurice Barry, Performance Rights Waived

Our spirits strong; our strength not deadened,
we somehow survived a snowmageddon.
But twenty-twenty sneered crying, “Here, you! Hold my beer!”
And now, locked in with this pandemic,
the issues are much more than academic.
One thing for certain is the challenge that is our next school year.

The change will happen across many layers
so please don’t listen to the sad nay-sayers
who think remote teaching is a wasted effort, a mere fool’s game.
For our young ones are far from feral
and their education won’t be in peril
so long as we are willing to let our world-views be reframed.

Yes, once we viewed a learning space
as a room where we gathered, face to face;
a thing; a structure that owed its existence to it’s physicality.
But in this time of social distance
we must create a new existence.
The virtual ties we build together will form our new reality.

New ways to be present; you’ve heard of Zoom?
Maybe Collaborate, Webex, even Messenger Rooms?
No doubt by now you’ve taken one or more out on a trial,
all decked off in your new headset.
But a session or two left you knackered, I bet.
Seriously: getting used to this mode is going to take a while.

“Why is online so tiring?” you may have mused.
Well, we we’ve had whole lives to become used
to our normal senses. Now our attention is also slapped
with stattaco audio, and a video soup,
text chats, both individual and group;
these are add-ons, and to them our brains will need time to adapt.

So as you set out to make plans for the fall
it’s important to keep both your eyes on the ball.
Achievement trumps all but what matters most is what students do.
So don’t lecture and “cover stuff” at great length.
We’re not entertainers; our greatest strength
comes from creating the success path and steering them all through.

Rather than preventing all distractions
focus, rather, on interactions.
Employ your breakout rooms and maybe bring in virtual guests.
Use Collaborate, Meet, Webex or Zoom
in tandem with your Google classroom.
And find other ways of assessing than reliance on pen and paper tests.

Yes, breakout rooms may leave you vexed.
Why they’re so cumbersome, leaves us all perplexed.
Still, with practice it doesn’t have to feel all that contrived.
They accomplish more than idle jaw.
Organize; double up for a jig saw!
And with practice your small groups will surely come alive.

When the whole class contributes to the same Google Doc
and then views it as one, it’s a gallery walk!
Or, given one minute and each student with their own blank page,
encouraged by you to contribute their thoughts,
each attending as well to their own unique spots.
Your students’ minute paper will not fail to amaze and to engage.

With Xmind, FreeMind or maybe MindMup
groups in breakout rooms, can do a concept map up.
Or turn them all loose on a Doc to create a cool Graffiti wall.
And also, since you can share your desktop,
the whiteboard with software then you can swap:
Lab interfacing, Desmos, Geogebra, whatever: your class can have it all.

And, as for the chaos. It’s not a rat race.
Al hands will settle in once routines are in place.
Set rules around cameras and use a hands-up as a talking piece.
Don’t hog the mike, encourage debate.
After questions are asked allow a sufficient wait.
Then your class participation is guaranteed to only increase.

And always remember, if you’re patient and kind,
your students’ needs and yours will remain quite aligned.
And if on one slow, frustrating day, for sanity you are reaching,
remember it’s straightforward; the order’s not tall
so long as one truth is remembered and kept above all:
It’s not science, or math, but students that you are teaching.

Maurice Barry has been a practicing educator since 1983. He is currently the coordinator of MUN’s Teaching and Learning Commons.

This was the recitation I did for the 2020 MUN Education Grads. Just realized I never shared it.

Thing Three

©2021 Maurice Barry. Performance rights waived.

Martin stood alone, outside the big school doors and almost cried.
How could he make a difference in this isolated island place?
But this two-room school was his last chance, even though it was happenstance
that created this new circumstance he was trying to embrace.
The year was nineteen thirty three, a time historians do agree
Education in this province had finally reached its poor nadir.
While Martin knew within his heart he really needed a new start,
he wondered what fates had played a part to finally bring him here.

He pulled one door open with a creak and inside he took a furtive peek.
A porch with open classroom doors at left and right.
The dark, cold room with desks in rows “That one’s mine” he did suppose.
Still he wished his was the other one that looked so warm and bright.
“Here. You can have this box of splits!” Martin jumped; almost lost his wits.
Turned to see the other teacher’s smiling face, and a box of birch in outstretched hands.
“I’m Anna and if I can bring more wood or help with anything?”
“I’m fine,” he muttered, to himself wincing, knowing he really had no plan.

A short while later he heard the bell and childrens’ voices arriving as well.
Looking up he saw about thirty standing by their wooden desks and chairs
“You’ve work to do, so grab your books.” The students shuffled about, exchanging looks.
“You heard me. Get to your studies. Why else would you be here?”
One tall slim lad with short dark hair said, “Sir we haven’t said the prayer.”
Martin muddled to his feet, aware of how his own cheeks did burn.
Without thinking he then said the Grace, then sat back down red in the face.
But the students still remained in place, their heads slightly upturned.

“We don’t have our books,” said the same slim lad. “Will I give them out?” he then did add.
“No, I’ll do it,” answered Martin. “And, boy, what is your name?”
“It’s Pat, Sir,” he said, his cheeks now aglow. Martin wondered why the others chuckled so
as he rummaged through the books, so slow, with no one but himself to blame.
The books finally doled out, Martin looked around and to no great surprise he found
most quietly staring at their texts except for, well guess who.
Yup. Pat again, my oh my, going from seat to seat like some gadfly.
Martin thought, “Something’s wrong with that poor boy; he hasn’t got a clue!”

After what felt like years the morning passed and when the dinner bell rang at last.
Martin chose to remain behind. “Should I make a swim for it?”
“Could you use some help, by any chance?” He jumped, almost soiled his pants,
then stood up straight, hoping his brave stance masked his non-existent grit.
“No one makes it on their own and, Martin, you are not alone.”
Anna’s soft insistent tone almost broke through Martin’s funk.
Still Martin could not his past eschew and so he responded with great ado,
“No I’ll be fine. I’ll make it through,” but his spirits further sunk.

And so it went, day after day, Martin fighting to get his way
with his reluctant charges making it increasingly tough.
And Pat, the worst one of the lot, going from seat to seat ‘til Martin’s nerves were shot.
Until one day when he decided he’d finally had enough.
“Pat, sit down!” he roared through anger pent. “And stay after school for punishment!”
Pat complied, though red eyes couldn’t hide behind a soggy sleeve.
When the bell rang Pat got up to go. Martin refrained from shouting “No.”
“Who needs this?” he thought, although he was galled to see him leave.

For the next few days there was one empty chair. Wherever Pat was he wasn’t there.
And there surely was a difference felt throughout the whole classroom.
Nobody spoke, no not the one. The students like mopes. Not much got done.
“My goodness,” Martin remarked at length, “This place is like a tomb.”
Next Monday Pat returned at last, head hung down, arm in a cast.
“What happened,” inquired Martin but Pat offered no reply.
“Please tell me?” “No it’s nothing Sir.” With a twinge of shame Martin inferred.
Pat’s parents crossed a line for sure, so there could be no turned turned blind eye.

“Anna, where does Pat live to?” “Next door to you. I would have thought you knew.”
He grabbed his hat and coat and soon was pounding on the door.
“I’m Ellen and this is Richard,” though he hadn’t asked. “Lovely to meet our neighbour at last.”
“That so? Well, I’m there, aghast, because of your actions which I abhor.”
“Pat’s bad in school, that’s true enough. But there’s still no need to treat him that rough.”
“What do you mean?” asked Ellen. He replied simply, “the cast.”
“On blaming us you seem hell bent. But it was a boating accident.”
Shocked, Martin turned to make himself absent, but Ellen continued, “Not so fast.”

“Pat loves to fish and most every day takes the punt out jigging on the bay.
But a few days ago the starter pin let go, and the flywheel broke Pat’s arm.
But how would you know that locked away, in that lonely house day after day?
Instead of thinking we had hell to pay you should know we do not harm.”
“Dreadfully sorry. My mistake.” Martin turned away; his whole self ached.
“One more thing.” an edge in Ellen’s voice turned him back around.
“We don’t hold grudges neither Richard nor I and if at some later time you’d like to try
finding some on whom you can rely, you know where we can be found.”

Hurt feelings he could not assuage he wandered down by someone’s stage,
sat himself down, his legs hung over the side.
Clearly, even through his disgrace he had no business in this outport place.
Next steamer and he was gone he did then and there decide.
“Want a penney for your thoughts?” he turned around, guts tied in knots,
Anna was right beside him sot there on a pile of buoys.
“I realized I do not belong.” “No, Martin, I do believe you are wrong.
You just need to stop being so headstrong and open up your eyes.”

Martin stood to go and then with that, through the door of the stage, who emerged, but Pat
clad in rubber boots and weathered old oil clothes.
Offered “I’m heading out to jig a few.” Anna asked, “Mind if we come too?”
Pat answered a bit shyly, “It’d be fine I suppose.”
Martin started, “I should go home for sup…” But a look from Anna shut him right up.
Soon they were all aboard with Pat trying to start the make and break
“Patricia, kindly step aside.” Anna started the engine with just one try.
“Pat’s a girl,” Martin himself did chide. “How stunned am I for goodness sake!”

Pat stopped the engine by and by. Passed him a thing, “Give the Jigger a try?”
Martin answered, “No, I think I’m fine for now.”
“Wrong answer!” Anna, to him demured. Something buried within him stirred.
“I will,” he reconsidered. “But Pat, please show me how.”
Pat’s face lit up and she beamed with pride. Coaching Martin as to fish he tried.
All the while, he thought of how she acted just like she did at school.
If I could take it back, he wished as the bottom of the boat filled up with fish.
“Oh my! She was only trying to assist and I am such a fool.”

“I think we’ve caught enough for now. We’ll be ‘til dark cleaning ‘em I allow.”
Anna started up the engine and Pat steered back for the shore.
All the while Martin’s spirit grew. He looked all around, and it all seemed new.
The place–so much more inviting and warm than it had seemed before.
“Want to learn how to clean and split a cod?” “I do!” Martin’s return smile was broad.
“See you in school?” Anna’s question was tinged with a little dread.
“You will,” he answered. “And after today I could use some help in finding my way.”
She nodded, “You will be okay,” leaving Martin hopeful for what lay ahead.

(Note–there are ten ‘things’. This is but one.

Get Out There!

You did all the work.
You conquered your fears.
And now look around,
you’ve made it to here.

But where, then, is this “here”?
Oh, it may seem unclear.
Especially after this past
pandemicy year.

You came in with a dream,
or a plan or a scheme.
We saw it, how from the first
In your eyes it did gleam.

Collaboration–our theme.
You were made one of the team.
And at first it was hard.
Not at all what it seemed.

Remote classes to attend.
Ten-page papers to be penned.
Soon the weight of all the work
On you did descend.

But your colleagues became friends
You learned to trust and to depend
on their support for grappling with
what you all had to contend.

Labs, talks, presentations,
quizzes, tests and learning stations
Open ended projects along
with unforeseen vexations.

Building new and strong relations,
conquering all those frustrations,
But what really were the most
important of foundations?

Was there really more besides
the endless slew of curriculum guides?
Can you say that your walks through them
were your most important strides?

Something else? Don’t you agree?
With a closer look it’s there to see:
you picked up a lot of other stuff
while earning this degree.

You very quickly did discern
there’s no one best way that students learn.
No doubt the knowledge of this fact
at first caused you some concern.

You tried and tried your very best.
Endless hours you did invest.
Until you learned that differentiation
was what got the thing addressed.

So learn your learners with style and grace,
creating an open welcoming space.
Differences should not be ironed out
but rather be embraced.

As for winging it? Man, oh man!
A truism? Nothing nothing truer than
that people never plan to fail
but they simply fail to plan.

Planning? By now you’ve done your share
while reading guides, tearing at your hair.
And we bet you also found it’s best
to always have a spare.

From time to time things go awry.
Enough to make you cuss, or cry.
At times like that you’d appreciate
Having a backup in supply.

And while you’re at it, for goodness sake,
go easy; cut yourself a break!
Nobody expects perfection.
It’s okay to make mistakes.

Sometimes the world has you outgunned
We’re all human and you won’t be shunned.
There’s always something in it to learn
even when you feel a little stunned

And now, as you prepare to take your turn
remember there’s still lots to learn.
Who knows what new challenges you’ll face
and other degrees you’ll earn?

The future that you look towards
may have chromebooks, iPads and SMART Boards,
but, toys aside, we know you see
the real and meaningful rewards.

You’ll build bonds that will never sever,
make days better through your endeavours.
And best of all will be those who insist
you were the bestest teacher ever!

And for our part, we, here at MUN
know you, our grads, are second to none.
And we cheer and applaud you now
that your careers have just begun.

And the one thing we say to you fine crowd—
the thing we holler right out loud
is how much faith we have in you
and how you make us proud.

You know your maths, reading, science and arts
Letters, numbers, figures and charts.
And best of all your secret weapons:
your collective brains and hearts.

So go now; give it your best shot.
Apply the things that you’ve been taught.
And remember kindness counts for more
than just an afterthought.

So ring on phones. Knock on doors.
Apply, apply, apply in scores.
There’s jobs out there we guarantee
So go and make them yours.

And when you do keep this in mind:
always remember to be kind
never forgetting how all our lives
are so totally intertwined.

Now your brains and talent you must showcase.
So get out there! Go forge your space!
Go on, get going and make the world
a kinder, smarter, more loving place.

Book: The Ones You Meet Crossing Over

You may have noticed my voice here, in this space, has been silent of late. It’s not because I’ve stopped writing, though! Over the past year I’ve been working away on a set of stories, all set in my home of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.

The first, The Ones You Meet Crossing Over, is set in 1925 and follows Martin, an Irishman and a veteran of the Great War as he begins a career as a schoolmaster and makes a home in outport Newfoundland.

In these troubled times I’m thinking some of you might appreciate a unique tale, told in my curious Newfoundland (Dad) / Dublin (Mom) accent so I’ve decided to make the whole thing available in audio format up on Soundcloud

Here’s a link to Chapter 1: You don’t need to install Soundcloud if you don;t want to.

And Here’s a link to Chapter 2.


And, of course all of you are avid readers so perhaps you would rather do exactly that. If so, Chapter 1 is over on the link below as “Book 1 Sample” and Chapter 2, happens, for now, to be the latest post.

If you like it follow along. I will be adding a chapter every couple of days until it’s finished. There are eleven in total.


The Darkness and the Light

Their program nearly over, the student teachers settled in
and waited for the start of their last class.
All in eager anticipation; careers set to begin,
yet still amazed at just how quick the year had passed.

The work was finished so they figured that this would be the time and place
to say goodbyes and and on the year to reminisce.
But to their great surprise they learned that wouldn’t be the case.
The prof said, “I’ve been waiting for the chance to ask you this.”

Was this a joke? No, she was serious.There would be no chit chat.
So, they sat up straighter and gave to her their full attention,
thinking, “what on earth could be so all important that
she left it right until the very end to mention?”

Without a word the lights she turned off, the window blinds she closed
and then went and softly shut the door so tight.
And in the silent, unlit room the question then she posed,
“tell me please, when does the darkness become light?”

It was as if the clock had stopped; nobody made a sound.
All sat waiting, thinking, “I don’t want to be the one to answer this.”
But time did pass and the realization slowly came around:
someone would have at least to offer up a guess.

Now, quite a few of them engaged in a game of second guessing,
thinking that to find the answer would not be all that hard.
And on this last day perhaps she’d planned one final simple lesson.
Yet, the quiet stillness of the room had caught them all off-guard.

A first attempt, was offered up, “Wait, I think I know.
It’s when the words within our books then can be seen.
So truth and knowledge can finally on our students be bestowed.
And, best of all, new insights and subtleties be gleaned.”

She shook her head, no, uh-uh then at what she’d heard,
saying, “who says reading is a thing they’ll even want to do?
So many find their truth and live without the printed word.
And aren’t books best when guided by insight and wisdom too?”

Some were now perplexed but then there came another try.
“It’s when the class can see the notes and such I put upon the board,
and pass out gems of knowledge, their consideration to apply,
so precious facts to their growing memories then can all be stored.”

But shook her head again, retorting, “it’s not at all just about you.
And you should never equate the act of teaching with that of telling.
You’ve got to guide, help and demonstrate; yes, all of that is true.
But it’s what your students can perform that should be the most compelling.”

One student, braver than the rest, offered up one last response.
“It’s when they can see my classroom and all the wonders that it holds
and my students in their courses can thus find themselves ensconced,
and feel the magic of the learning that inside there unfolds!”

But she shook her head again and said, “no, that’s still not just quite it.
Each of your classes are important but they’re not the only one.
Our subjects are mere elements of a much larger kit.
It’s more than just your stuff that counts considering the long run.”

Nothing was said til at some length, once more the prof resumed,
“You’re wondering what was wrong with what you said?
Frankly, the answer is ‘nothing much’; they were as clever as you’d assumed.
It’s just that your words did not quite jive with what was in my head.”

“The need for guidance and compassion was far from in your sights.
Then you put yourselves out front, when it’s students who matter most.
And you were fixated on what divides and not on what unites.
It’s as if the differences were what had you all engrossed.”

While she spoke the student teachers became increasingly aware
of how their eyes had become accustomed to the light so low.
And looking around, a simple truth began to become clear,
and through it all a bunch of smiles did glow.

And in the ever-rising light, her voice continued, “You’d
best bear in mind it’s not just about how to earn a living.
School is about learning how to build a life that’s good.
And for instilling in our young folk all the the joy that comes from giving.”

“So it’s best to recognize those gathered all around
share and walk much of the path that lies in front of you.
And, like you, endeavour to pursue a life that’s sound
while to themselves always remaining true.”

“When you are able to discern the commonalities
and let them be the guide to your insight,
then recognize that the school unites us all in family:
that is when the darkness becomes light.”

Each year, at their year – end gala, I do a recitation for outgoing graduates of the Intermediate / Secondary teacher education program at Memorial University of Newfoundland, my place of work. The above is this year’s installment.

For Wilbert, a True Friend and Mentor

“This can’t be true.” I looked again
but the words remained there, plain to see.
“Life’s setting sun is sinking low.”
I wondered, “how could this be?”

The very one who, so many times,
stood firm for what you knew was right
and who broke down walls to get things done,
with modesty, honesty and foresight.

And who, for friends, and home and family
stood strong, the worst you’d face
is now facing the end, but still my friend 
holds courage, strength and grace.

And for my part, stronger than the sadness
I know some time soon I must endure
from my memory springs the many things
I have yet to thank you for.

I’m reminded of the first time we met.
You, then the province’s consultant for Math Ed.
agreed to help this “young gaffer” (your words)  
with advice on a paper I just couldn’t put to bed.

Well, based on the insight and knowledge
you so freely gave me on that day
my mediocre work improved
and, thanks to you, the paper earned an “A”.

And then in the early nineties when
distance education physics was set to go
and I hinted “hire me” to who was in charge
my rejection came as a humbling blow.

But when my school board got a call
asking if they could second me to do that very chore
I knew right then there was one more thing
I had to thank you for.

And then, later on, when the axe fell,
budgets slashed and so much was let go
you found a way for me to stay,
even gave me more chances for to grow.

Like when you managed the Vista project
which reinvisioned online learning,
you found for me a space–and t’was through that grace
my career took its next turning.

For the skills I learned all through that time
and the responsibilities you helped me learn to bear
I did apply as we built CDLI,
so thanks, too, for all those years.

I’ve often wondered how best to thank you for
the opportunities, support and, of course, advice
but I came to see you just did it unselfishly.
There never was a price.

And so, now I work my time with those
on the same path that that we once chose.
And the journey they’re on is so very long.
It’s a less kind world these days, I do suppose.

Still it seems to me that the best way
to honour all the kindness you’ve bestowed
is to pass it on and try to help those
with whom I share this road.

So when I find a way to help another
through some thing I say or do
I’ll feel that same sense of gratitude
and smile, then and there,
as I think of you.

My favourite picture of you, taken back in ’99 on the occasion of your retirement. Back Row: Lloyd Gill. Wayne Oakley, Harvey Weir, Dave Dibbon, Rachel Handrigan, Wade Sheppard, Rene Wicks. Front Row: Wilbert Boone, Maureen Boone, Jean Brown, Maurice Barry

Small Schools, Big Decisions

We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. –T, S. Eliot

It’s that time again–a few small rural schools are once again in the fight of their lives. Sadly, I noticed Swift Current Academy and James Cook Memorial are among those on the list.

Back in my university days, I had a very good friend from Swift Current. We were residence roommates for a while.  Though we came from communities fairly close together and of roughly the same size I was always envious of the extras he enjoyed while being a student at Swift Current Academy. For instance it had a drama club and he was able to attend numerous provincial festivals. It also had music at all levels and I was decidedly envious of his ability to play piano, something he’d picked up at school. They also had a gym. The one in my community, while I was in school, was just an empty shell; the money was not found to complete it until after I was gone.

Swift Current, viewed from a hill above nearby Black River. I can see the tops of those hills from my house in Souhern Harbour. 

In the summer, from time to time, I’d drive down and spend the day with him. Perhaps we’d head down to Marystown, just for a gab and a bite. He loved poetry and would spend most the time trying to make me love the work of T. S Eliot as much as he did. It didn’t work. I still don’t like it much. Perhaps we’d hang out at his house and play board games or talk about books. My favourite times would be when we’d just walk along the roads, stopping from time to time to go out on the many wharves that lined the river’s edge. Mostly, the water would be drifting lazily by; Piper’s Hole was generally sleeping monster. From time to time, though, especially after rain it would awaken and I’d see the furious flow that gave the place its name. Swift Current is like that.

He’s gone now, died over thirty years ago, but never really all that far from me; I think fondly of Steve and his home all the time.

During the 1990s I was a Physics / Math instructor with the province’s distance education program. Daily, I’d enter one of our audiographic studios and hold class with my students, dispersed all throughout the province. Swift Current Academy was one of my schools and, for years, I was a virtual member of the staff. I even managed to get out to a few of their spring proms.

That’s been a while, too. I moved on to educational administration in the late nineties. Most of my former students are, by now, in their forties or just about there, and busily getting on with their lives…mostly somewhere else, as it turns out.

Swift Current is what you might call “off the beaten track.” To get there you have to travel about 25 km down the Burin Peninsula highway The school is similar to what you’d find in most small communities, perched kind of out of sight on the side of a hill and meant to handle around 200 to 250 students, which is what it had in the ‘70s and ‘80’s.  Back when I taught via distance, it was declining from 150 to 110. There’s a little less than that there right now. Last time I checked it was home to 28 students. That’s right, 28. Today’s enrollment may be a little off but there are around 15-16 students in k-6 and 12-13 in 7-12, or thereabouts. That’s all the more remarkable when you realize that it also serves two other nearby communities, Garden Cove and North Harbour.

Same for Cook’s Harbour. When I taught there via distance, enrollment was declining from around 60 to 50. No there are 10 or 11 students, about equally divided between k-6 and 7-12.

Now the existence of the schools is under question, for what must be the umpteenth time. The district feels there’s money to be saved by busing Swift Current Academy students either to Arnold’s Cove or to Clarenville, where, additionally, the schools they will then attend can offer “better programming.” Besides, it can be pointed out that a trip from Swift Current Academy to Tricentia Academy in Arnold’s Cove is only around 45 km and should only take about 30 minutes by bus. Similarly with Cook’s Harbour. The distance from The school there to White Hills Academy is 45 km, a trip that can be done on a bus in 45 minutes.

There’s just one thing wrong with this reasoning–basically everything. Let’s dissect it bit by bit.

A fisher’s wharf in Garden Cove.

Let’s start with the supposed savings of money. Anyone who’s ever done educational administration knows there are no simple formulas. Everything is interrelated, just like the Earth’s own living system. Attempts to enact change using a simplistic cause-and-effect approach tend to fail–they often backfire, in fact–because of the many hard-to-see complexities that lurk beneath the surface. Cutting a school does not translate to savings as the move-around of students creates additional pressures on the communities they leave and on the schools to which they are moved. As often as not, the loss of 2-3 teachers at the school to be closed is met by a needed addition of the same number of people in the school that receives them. Oh, and vastly increased bussing costs. No savings. None. Forget it.

Now there’s the issue of “better programming.” This notion is based on the two false and stupid premises I shall call “False and Stupid Premise 1” or “FSP1” and ”False and Stupid Premise 2” or, FSP2. Let’s now take them on.

FSP1: Multi-age, multi-grade classes are second-rate. This is mainly driven by the people who’ve known nothing else–mostly people who are ignorant of life in small communities. They’ve only been in a classroom where a teacher is in charge of just one grade and therefore assume that if you pop in a second grade the teacher’s efforts have to double. Since that’s not possible, then it follows that the students then only get half an education. That’s not necessarily true. It’s only true if you view classes as teacher-centred, which, frankly most urban folk tend to, having come from an environment where all hands sit neatly in rows, listen diligently as a teacher drones on about whatever from the front of the room and then go and do a bunch of paper-and pencil based homework at home. My friend Dr. J. H., puts it like this, “Too many people equate teaching with telling.” In most of our small rural schools it’s not like that, nor has it ever been. That’s because, with multi-age multi-grade (let’s call it MG-MA) being an omnipresent reality, classes have always tended to be more student-centered. Unlike the urban classrooms, the rural ones have been much less rigid. The teacher does not drone on, ad nauseum, to the  whole group. They can’t. And that’s a good thing. Instead, with the MG-MA class, the focus is more on getting the students to do the work and on finding ways to help them do just that. Now, think about it–which way do you think would be more effective (a) listening and watching a teacher do something (bear in mind the typical tolerance that a child has for watching and listening to anything) or (b) the child being made to do that thing for themselves. Unless you are truly daft you can see that the answer has to be the latter. Now, this is not to imply that MG-MA is necessarily easier and more effective–it’s not. Pulling off MG-MA requires appropriate training, support and a student-centered mindset. With those in place, though, it’s in no way inferior.

FSP2: A larger school naturaly has more to offer. It’s only natural to assume that if you double the school’s complement of students, so, too, will the staff complement double. And, then, with more students, and teachers who, presumably, will also give of their extra time voluntarily there’ll be a broader offering of courses and extracurricular activities. Too bad it does not work that way at all. First of all, the larger the school, the leaner the operation. Look for yourself at the pupil-teacher ratios in the various schools. You’ll notice that they’re quite generous in the small schools and not so much in the larger schools where teachers have to struggle with classes from 25 to 35 students. Simply put, the larger the schools the more harried the teachers and the less attention each student gets in class. But it doesn’t stop there. While large schools DO offer a wider variety of extra-curricular activities the number that each student can reasonably get involved with also declines. Consider varsity sports, for example. In a school of 1000 students, only the 15 or so BEST basketballers can make the team, and that team only. In a small school, just about everyone with an interest gets to do it. Besides, they also get to play on the volleyball team, the badminton team, etc. Small schools, by their very nature, encourage all students to participate in most, if not all, activities.

Finally there’s that whole load of misinformation and just plain wrong-headedness around busing. Consider again Swift Current, sure, it only takes around 30 minutes to drive from Swift Current to Arnold’s Cove but that’s not how buses work. The bus has to start it’s run right at the southern end of the community and then wend its way through the town making anywhere from 4-7  stops along the way. Each stop takes time. With that done, the bus then has to go down into Garden Cove and do the same. With that out of the way it then has to do the same in North Harbour. That’s a total distance of about 70 km and a total driving time of around 1 h 15 minutes. And that’s on a good day. How many good days to you think we can expect in the winter? Not a lot. Over the typically snow-covered roads we expect from December to March you can double that. Of course things can be made more efficient. The buses from Garden Cove and North Harbour, for example can just meet the bus from Swift Current and shorten things up somewhat–you’ve still got three busses running though. Not exactly a recipe for cost savings.

Now let’s look at Cook’s Harbour. It’s about a 50 km trip from Cook’s Harbour to While Hills Academy in St. Anthony, with as associated driving time of around 45 minutes. Adding in the stops you need to make it’s more like an hour. Again, though, on a good day. Have you ever driven the route in winter? I have, several times, and let me tell you, it’s harrowing. Cook’s Harbour is way up there at the top of the Great Northern Peninsula and it tends to get a lot of wind and drifting snow. To put it mildly the roads are tricky. Once again, I’d double the driving time on most days in winter, assuming the roads are passable at all.

Think about it, the busing “solution” ensures that the students from the community spend three to maybe four hours per day on school buses. Let’s do that again, but slower: Children. Spend. The. Bulk. Of. Their. Time. Out. Of. School. Driving. To. School. “Only on the bad days!” you may well retort to which I can only respond, “Have you ever been on those routes?” Most days during the school year are bad days. That’s how it is at the foggy soggy bottom of Placentia Bay and the wind and snow swept tip of the Great Northern Peninsula. You just think you know it because it’s not quite like that where you’re used to living.”

Which kind of brings us to the heart of the problem: the decisions for the community are not being made either by the community or, for that matter, to be in its best interests. That’s how it has to be, given that, by law, education in Canada is a provincial / territorial matter. Since we’ve socialized it, it stands to reason that the needs of the province as a whole takes precedence over that of any individual, school or community.

That said, there’s a certain inevitable sense of tragedy associated with the notion that those who decide are not those who have to live with it. For me, a transplanted bayman, it’s hard not to feel a certain double-dose of bitterness. First, it saddens me to see how so many of my fellow bayman expats so quickly adopt townie ways and completely shun the rural life that nurtured them. Worse, though, is the anger I get listening to listening to casual conversations in town; it’s long been my suspicion that townies would love it if they didn’t, in their words, “have to foot the bill for all of the lazy people who choose to live the comfy life ‘out around the bay.’”

Ah, yes, “around the bay” that catch-all phrase for everything in this province that exists outside the Northeast Avalon, that homogeneous hinterland where the people apparently talk funny, ride quads and do precious little work.

Which brings me back, sort of, to that T. S. Eliot quote, but in a very messed up way. Rather than gaining wisdom and depth of understanding from that long time of coexistence between the urban and rural parts of the province, it seems as though nothing changes. Yes, we come back to where we were, but none the wiser and none the better. Poor Eliot is totally wrong, at least as Newfoundland and Labrador is concerned. He’d have been better off using just two words–nothing changes.

We’re just back to where we’ve always been. In times past, decisions regarding outport Newfoundland were frequently made in St. John’s, for reasons that primarily suited the city and were based on a limited, negatively-biased understanding of not just outport life in general but also on what effect these choices would have not only on the communities directly affected but also on the province as a whole.

The basis of that very decision making is typically the back-of-the-envelope type where someone estimates the taxes paid directly by the community and then compares that value to the cost of providing services. If the former is smaller than the latter then it’s concluded that the service is too expensive to provide. It’s not worth it; a sinkhole that needs to be plugged. This is typically followed by complaints about self entitled bay dwellers, perhaps even calls for resettlement.

The stupid narrow mindedness of this so-called logic is rarely called to question, even though the flaws are readily apparent.

Frankly, there’s a complete ignorance of the simple fact that the economy of the St. John’s area is essentially parasitic, akin to a tremendous sucking vacuum, a ravenous black hole that only exists as long as money is lobbed into it from some external source.  It has few primary industries of its own. The majority of the jobs—retail, government, health care and education—do not create wealth themselves, but, rather redistribute it secondarily.

By contrast, the viable rural communities are home to industries that generate the wealth that sustains the capital. Every time a load of fish is landed, perhaps processed and then sold outside the province, every time a boat or train load of ore is sold on the world market, every time a load of lumber or paper is shipped off, each and every barrel of oil that leaves here, new money is put into the province’s coffers. Oh and let’s not forget the huge money that pours into outport Newfoundland courtesy of the men and women who take it home from the long work commute to Fort Mac. The best that St. John’s can do is recycle it a bit, through retail, services and taxation, and then pass it around for the crowd to have a few jars and complain about the stupid baymen and plot how they can all be fixed for once and for all.

Simply put, a vibrant and wealthy St. John’s is totally dependent on an equally vibrant and wealthy everything else and everyone would do well to bear that in mind.

Swift Current, viewed from a wharf in Garden Cove.

But that’s not what’s really disquieting. What is truly bothersome is the ease with which everyone accepts simple two-column financial accounting to be the only yardstick by which fiscal and social policy can be measured and decided. Life’s value cannot be properly and completely  counted using a financial balance sheet. Sure it’s one huge and reliable measure–after all, there’s absolutely no point in trying to create or build anything you cannot afford–but it cannot be the only measure. There are other things, including overall quality of life, especially as it affects one health, both physical and mental and, of course, the deeper portions of finance that extend beyond a simple balance sheet.

So what’s the point here? This: when making decisions about the future viability of communities it’s important to look beyond the obvious. Sure, do an accounting, but do it thoroughly. Look at the money but bear in mind that some dollars (ones that grow the economy) are worth more than others (the ones that are just recycled and which trickled down). Look also at the bigger picture. Is the loss of a single small school really worth it if it leads to the economic death  of  once-viable community? Are the alternatives as good as we think? Are they even safe? Even desirable at all?

I am reminded of my 21 years at the Department of Education. In the late eighties and early nineties, when the huge drop-off in student enrollment was first being realized, a term was coined: necessarily existent schools. It’s pretty much self-explanatory. At that time, there was a huge cull underway on schools and on school boards. Approximately 40 school districts was reduced, in several cycles, down to two–an English and a French one. At The same time the number of schools was reduced from around 1000 to a little over 300. Through it all, though, there was always a realization that, for some communities, closing a school was not a practical option and, even though the costs of operating those schools were significantly higher per capita, there was agreement, grudging, perhaps, but still agreement, that this was just part of maintaining a primarily-rural society. As time went on, though, more and more mean-spiritedness crept into the psyche and the term “necessarily existent schools” was dropped some time in the mid nineties. Now, nothing is off the table. Anything goes–literally.

We Newfoundlanders and Labradorians pride ourselves on being friendly, caring and community minded people. Is that really the case, though? A friend of mine has set me straight on the idea of the friendly NL’r. For years I recall him telling me, perhaps it’s not that we’re naturally friendly but that we haven’t been tested, really tested, lately. Well now, with oil at just under $65 per barrel, a depleted fishery, an all but dead pulp and paper industry and a mining industry sadly in need of some TLC it’s safe to say that we’re being tested and what’s the response from the supposedly affluent urban part of the province? “Shag the rural part, shut it down. Too expensive. Let them move to town or move away, whatever.”

Is that we we really want? Clearly, for me, the answer is, “no, not necessarily, let’s look closer.” In the case of of Swift Current Academy and James Cook Memorial I believe that to be very much the case.

Just today, on the radio I heard a story of how students from the recently damaged Bishop Field school had to move to the former School for the Deaf. Many of the parents concerned about the long bus ride. It’s a good thirty to forty minutes and the general consensus is that this is too long and that the situation needs to be rectified as soon as possible. Too bad the same sympathy cannot be extended to the few rural students who may soon have to face rides 4 times as long.

The tip of Sound Island (home of my children’s maternal Great-Great Grandmother), where Piper’s Hole River meets its brackish end

A few months back I was out home in Southern Harbour and had a little time on my hands so I drove down through Swift Current, just like it used to so many years ago. I stopped by the side of the road a few times and even walked out on some of the wharves, still marvelling at the river winding its way to its brackish end just past Sound Island. I looked toward the graveyard and thought of Steve, realizing that, of the people I knew from there from back in the day, none were left. I made a point of driving through Garden Cove and North Harbour on the way back. For the whole trip I did not see a single school-aged child. I so dearly hope this is not a portent.

Work, Unrequited Love, and Regret

It never ceases to amaze me how our chaotic lives so often lead to order. Just how is it that all of the random interactions between the thousands of souls within our circles of friendship can lead to any semblance of sanity? Social norms? Maybe? Bias? Possibly? All that is sure is that, now and then, powerful messages and lessons arise from the milieu and, if we allow ourselves a little peace and quiet there are there for the taking. Sometimes that lesson is one of regret.

Just the other day, I found myself making a point to a colleague like this: I asked, “Have you ever had a crush on someone who did not return your feelings? She chuckled, “Just one?” It was an easy question. It’s happened to all of us and unless someone’s really been blessed (actually I would say they are either very unlucky or, at best, awfully forgetful; after all strength only grows from times of pain), the mere mention of it can’t fail to resurrect, from those long-ago teenage and twenty-something years, the feelings of shame, of sadness; that overpowering grief which accompanies the realization that something you so dearly and powerfully want will remain forever beyond your grasp.

The subject? Work. My point? Even though we can love work it’s important to realize that work does not love us back. It can’t. It has, after all, no feelings and, therefore, no real means by which it can reciprocate. Any love-ish responses from work that we may experience, either real or imagined, are just in accordance with policy or some higher directive within the corporate structure. It’s just behaviourist; programmed.

Ersatz love is not love.

Now don’t get me wrong–I wasn’t suggesting that we should not love work. Far from it! Throwing one’s soul and passion into the daily labour is just about the healthiest form of self-expression I can fathom. That which occupies the lion’s share of our waking hours should be something about which we care deeply, right? Else, why bother? Find something else. There are, after all, plenty of ways in which you can spend the day.

No, it’s just that we should not expect reciprocity for those extras we put in. We are hired, after all, to do something fairly specific and, in return, it’s agreed that we will receive financial compensation along with, hopefully, a modicum of respect–although the later part is far from guaranteed. Anything else is on us, and us alone. The extras we do are best seen as things we do to receive rewards that are intrinsic. And good for that! After all there are few things more rewarding that the certitude that what we have done demonstrates excellence and is the results of our best efforts.

Life, at least seen through the rear-view, has an uncanny knack of leaving us with a more-or-less coherent rendition of events. Even ones that probably once bore no semblance of connection become, over time, all coupled, to a single train. So too with this week. After a conversation from last night here’s now a part two to my story.

Chatting at a party with a former student, I became aware of an even more powerful rendition of the story of one-sided love. She graduated with her B.Ed. some years ago and since then has been working hard in the hopes of some day obtaining full time employment. At the party she was quite upbeat. The number of substitute days she’d been getting, per week, has been steadily growing. She’s been working on another degree, one that will make her even more employable, and is right now just one course short–a course that is not offered in the next semester. No worries, though, she’s also working on a go-around, for a system that apparently does not really care if she succeeds or not.

There are times during a conversation when you disengage, temporarily, from the outward discourse and rejoin that ever-present inner conversation. So, shifting my mouth to automatic, my thoughts ran instead to the obvious: this young teacher–a particularly talented and well-suited individual, I might point out–had, some two years earlier, already achieved all that is necessary to pursue her chosen career. Since then she’s been going day by day, looking for substitute work while, at the same time, working feverishly to add yet another degree to an already impressive list. And all for what? “Hopefully sometime soon, maybe I will able to snag a term contract,” she’d said. She didn’t even see a permanent job as a realistic outcome at this point! How completely messed up, all things considered! I returned to the conversation, assured her that she was taking all the right steps, said, in all sincerity, “I am so very proud of you,” and returned to the group I was mostly hanging with.

It happened again on the ride home. Thinking back on the exchange with the former student a flood of similar stories of former students trying so very hard to break into such a walled-up system flowed through my head. This time the thought was inescapable. There’s love. There’s unrequited love and then there’s … this.

What have we done? How could we have possibly created such an uncaring, unfeeling structure? The irony! After all, this is the same system charged with the education, the care and, yes, the love of our young people. Is it too much to ask that it spare a little of that same love for those who so dearly want to be one of those charged with carrying out its mission?

So what’s my point? Frankly I’m not completely sure. I only wish I could suggest some positive steps that might ameliorate this, items that might make it a little more fair, more tolerable, more just plain right. Of course it’s not that simple. There are no real dragons to slay, no villains to vanquish. No doubt, as is the case in all walks, there are more than a few self-centered thugs who have muscled their way to positions of influence and power and, for whom, self-interest trumps integrity. They are the minority, though. The vast majority of all of those who serve the system, whether as teachers, administrators or as trustees, do so in pursuit of the lofty goals you’d expect. It’s just that we’re all just one piece of a much larger mosaic, one that cares about much more than young professionals and their contribution to our future.

There are those who will scoff, and assert that it’s all confirmation bias. You know, that style of wrong thinking, when we only acknowledge the evidence that supports our beliefs and either ignore that which is to the contrary or find a way to refute it. Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps, though, they’re not, at least not this time.

For my part, the best I have is a feeling of gratitude. It provides a huge measure of comfort knowing that those who wish to join the teaching profession do so with such a degree of fortitude and passion. That said, there’s something else and it’s not good. I’m left with deep regret knowing that my own veteran’s legacy, my own contribution of thirty-five years of service to the same profession has not contributed in any meaningful way to improvement in how we treat those who aspire to follow in our footsteps.

They Sure Can Slide Fingers on a Pane of Glass

Increasingly it seems to me that if, twenty years from now, we took the time to assess what the young folk of today got from their childhoods, the one thing we’ll be able to state with surety is that there was never a generation so adept at sliding their fingers along a small sheet of glass.

Thirty-five years ago I began (getting paid for) my teaching career. In those days I self-identified as a science – math teacher. I loved it, especially the lab activities. I was lucky because at the time–the early eighties–science curricula were designed to be very hands-on. It was great, but there was something else: I generally found that the activities jived very well with the students’ personal experiences. Students could, for example, relate to labs studying motion because the objects of study seemed so very familiar. For non-accelerated motion the students were used to gliding along ice, rolling along level ground on skateboards, bikes and rollerblades. For accelerated motion, they could similarly draw on tobogganing or biking downhill, playing ball and just throwing rocks in the ocean. For circular motion they had experience on playground merry-go-rounds, swings and even with twirling things on the end of string.

But then time passed. I noticed it first for circular motion, never an easy topic and one that you had to ensure that students had up-close-and-personal experience with before digging in through the lens of physics. Students could not relate anymore to any of the once-familiar events. Not even twirling stuff on strings! I just put it down to the increased time that the children were spending playing video games indoors, figured, “That’s sad, but I guess we’ll just have to redouble our efforts with the hands-on activities in school,” and thought no more of it.

…until the penny dropped.

Talking to the young people who attend the university at which I work it became increasingly obvious that, not only are the students not directly experiencing the physical world (aka playing outdoors) but neither are they doing that in school! Regardless of what happens in k-6, once they hit Intermediate and then High School, their days in science class are mostly spent with their bums in uncomfortable ancient school desks, all neatly arranged in rows, and listening to an adult talk, talk, talk about scientific knowledge or show off how well they can “solve a problem,” which, by the way, is not that at all but, rather, a boring run-through of some algorithm for dealing with some contrived situation or other.

And there’s shag all interaction with the physical world.

Once there was a thing called “core labs,” hands-on activities that HAD to be done. In the eighties they numbered 12 to 15 per course. These days the number is more like six and, guess what, less than that are actually done. Oh, they’re talked about and sometimes even simulated–you know, rubbing your fingers across the glass top of a tablet or whatever to simulate motion, or something equally banal–but rarely ever really done.

What a shame. It turns out that our remarkable, wonderful brains are ideally suited to experience the world in two different but complementary ways. One way is procedural, logical, even rules-based. It is dealt with mostly–but by NO MEANS EXCLUSIVELY–by the left side of the brain. Talking, reading and experiencing simulations feeds it nicely. The other was is more holistic, even probabilistic, and, similarly is mostly handled by the right side. It’s best fed through direct physical and / or sensory experience with the phenomenon in question. Two views, ideally nicely merged and coexisting, producing a complex and useful representation of whatever the senses encounter.

Too bad that the simulated and  talked about and PowerPointed-to-death world is mainly processed procedurally. It’s not real in the experiential sense and, as such, the processing that the (mostly) right brain is so good at never gets to happen. As a result, the young people can talk and diagram about the physical world, even “solve” paper-and-pencil problems but give ‘em something real like some electrical components or mechanical parts and they have no clue whatsoever what to do with them.

Because they’ve never had the chance to. Still, they have experienced glass displays and they are no doubt adept with that.