“The place was a wilderness of autumn gold and purple and violet blue and flaming scarlet on every side were sheaves of late lilies standing together–lilies which were white or white and ruby…Late roses climbed and hung and clustered and the sunshine deepening the hue of the yellowing trees made one feel that one stood in an empowered temple of gold.” The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett.
When I was I was sixteen I went to England for the first time, staying with different host families a few hours outside of London. I remember the gardens. Even a small yard was filled with rows of diverse colour, separated by narrow, meandering walking paths. It was such a contrast to the concrete and brick and asphalt dominating the front of the homes. I had never been in gardens that transported me beyond time and place before. The gardens offered magic and peace and escape–a refuge calming my fear of being away from home without my parents for the first time. This was when I learned that gardens were special.
As a child I loved the book “The Secret Garden” by Francis Hodgson Burnett. Mary Lennox is faced with big challenges: the death of her parents and everyone she knows and the move to a new country to live with an estranged, grieving uncle. The loss in her life is profound but through finding a secret garden, nurturing it to grow again, Mary gains a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging. As she tends to the garden, she becomes stronger and happier, healing herself and those around her.
Over the past few months, I’ve been rehearsing “The Secret Garden: The Musical” by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon with Northumberland Players. Coming back to this story I realize that although the story is about a child, the lessons about healing are most important for adults.
” “Perhaps it has been buried for ten years,” she said in an almost whisper. “Perhaps it is the key to the garden!” The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Norman and Simon have done an exquisite job of adapting this story for stage with a captivating score and multi-layered script. The music is stunning and complex. Listening to the Broadway soundtrack from beginning to end is a moving experience in itself, at times so powerful I want to weep. This is a musical that invites audiences to reflect on their lives, to face the ghosts of their pasts, and to do the work of healing. In many ways this is a musical for introverts.
This is not a musical with tap-dancing and kick-lines. It’s a love song, an extensive ballad about facing the storm, then finding life after loss. How can you heal when the love of your life has died? How can you have the strength to love your child when grief overcomes you? How can you support others who are gripped by despair?
After the death of her family, Mary goes to live with her uncle, Archibald Craven. The Craven family is overcome by grief for many years after Lily (Archie’s wife) died. Archibald, his brother, and his son, Colin, become like the wilted plants in a forgotten garden. They are desperate for healing but unable to do so alone.
Mary is brave and curious and independent. Her wild spirit leads her to meet Martha and Dickon and Ben. She listens to the robin. She opens the door to the unknown. She begins the work of restoring life to a neglected place. She teaches us about healing…
Healing is about being brave during the nightmares, listening to the whispers calling you to take action, taking a risk by stepping outside, giving yourself permission to feel the sun on your face, connecting with the people you meet, redefining a purpose for your life, focusing on something meaningful, giving to others what you most need for yourself, and honouring those you’ve lost by sharing your memories of them with others.
The garden is a powerful metaphor.
“Six months before Mistress Mary would not have seen the world was waking up, but now she missed nothing.” The Secret Garden, Francis Hodgson Burnett.
In the spring of 2006, “The Secret Garden” was the last high school musical I directed. We used a student version with simpler music than the Broadway one, but the basic story was the same. I selected this play to delight the student audiences, for the simplicity of the story and its message. Ten years have passed and I am immersed in this story again. I missed so much. The story is just waking up for me now.
I bet Francis Hodgson Burnett knew we needed a child to teach adults about resiliency. Today resiliency has become a buzz word in education and parenting. We want to know how to help our children cope better with difficulty and bounce back from hurt. In a time when anxiety and depression seem to be on the rise, I wonder if we should look to the lessons of the garden.
“When her mind gradually filled itself with robins, and moorland cottages crowded with children, with queer crabbed old gardeners and common little Yorkshire housemaids, with springtime and secret gardens coming alive day by day, and also with a moor boy and his ‘creatures,’ there was no room left for disagreeable thoughts which affected her liver and her digestion and made her yellow and tired.” The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett.
At work a student learning need often points to a teacher learning need. If our children need to be more resilient then we need to learn more about it. How do we cope with difficulty? If we are more resilient, then our children will be too.
To a child, ten years is a lifetime. To us it passes in a blink. Ten years ago I was thirty. The areas of my life that I have tended to have slowly grown and developed: my home, my job, my relationships with those closest to me, my creative projects, and my sense of inner peace and contentment. The areas of my life that I have neglected continue to be difficult, stagnant, and haunting. Some days when I’m afraid I feel the walls rising up, the large door moving into place, the key turning in the lock.
The Secret Garden gently invites me to visit the areas of my life that need nurturing. It reminds me that even in the most impossible examples of hurt that healing is possible, that it’s worthwhile to open the door, to slowly tend to the weeds and rot of disappointment and loss to make a space to plant some new seeds.
This is a musical for poets and thinkers and dreamers too. In the show, I am in the chorus. We are called “Dreamers.” I love this. We are spirits reflecting Mary’s fears and hopes. This show has a rich subtext inviting audiences to dig beneath the plot–but you will need to do some work.
A few years ago I saw this version of the musical staged at a theatre outside of Toronto. I thought I knew everything I needed to know about this story. I left the theatre feeling entertained by the staging and music, but I missed a great opportunity. I didn’t make connections. I didn’t listen to the whispers.
Being a cast member in this show has given me the space to think deeply about its themes. Maybe I wasn’t ready for these lessons before. Maybe I hoped that someone like Mary Lennox would literally pop into my life and show me the way, do all the hard work for me. Maybe I needed to become part of the story to truly understand: we all need healing.
Then I think about the things I’ve learned about community healing and peace building. The garden metaphor extends beyond my life to our lives–to how we can begin the work of healing from losses in our towns and countries and even the world. There are so many big scary things going on in the world right now that I feel I don’t have the capacity to face: terrorism, gun violence, water shortages, corruption, war, poverty. So when I hear of a world tragedy I grieve quietly for a couple days, then I put up the walls and the door and lock it all up–but other people are out there tending to this difficult stuff, working each day to do what they can…
We will always have pain and loss in our lives. We would be naive to think difficulty is for other people. I want to be more like Mary. I want to find the keys, open the doors, tend to the gardens of my life, my town, my world. If we listen to the whispers in the subtext of The Secret Garden we will hear the characters asking us to examine our lives and to look for where we can tend some earth, starting small with just a bit.
Children will certainly be entertained by the story and characters in The Secret Garden, but adults can be changed by it. So I invite you to join us next month as the doors open on this beautiful show at The Capitol Theatre in Port Hope. Allow yourself to think deeply. Ask the story to remind you of the truths you saw as a child. Listen closely to the whispers.
Mary Lennox offers just one story. Each character on the stage has a story too. And perhaps you will see yourself not in Mary Lennox, but in Archibald Craven or Lily or Colin or Dickon or Martha or the Dreamers.
Despite the heavy themes, The Secret Garden is an uplifting, hopeful, optimistic musical. It takes us to the saddest parts in our hearts but shows us a path back out into the light and into the world.
” “Now,” he said at the end of the story, “it need not be a secret anymore.”” The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett.
This is the time of year we celebrate beginnings and endings. We reflect on change and fresh starts. We check in on where we have been and where we are going. We set direction. We resolve to be better than we were the year before.
Beginnings and endings naturally occur many times throughout our lives. People celebrate a new job, a new marriage, a new house, a new child. We celebrate the end of a week, the end of a year, the end of schooling. Beginnings and endings are milestones showing us that we are moving and growing.
Then there are other beginnings and endings too. A new health diagnosis, a new world tragedy, a new loss or disappointment. We are changed by the end of a relationship, the end of a time, or the end of a life. Beginnings and endings are complex.
2015 was a year of learning for me, filled with some complex beginnings and endings. I turned 40. I settled into a new job as principal in an elementary school (after 15 years of working in high schools). I stopped writing for a while. It was a year of learning about education, friendship, family, and myself. It was very much a year of acclimatizing and adjusting to big changes (both literal life changes and changes in my perspective).
Today I feel more grounded and confident than any other time in my life. I’m happy.
It’s time to climb a mountain.
2016 will be my “Brave New Year” and the year I devote to training my inner Jedi.
On New Year’s Day I took out my watercolour paints and swished some colour around on the page. When it dried, a faint outline of a mountain appeared. I traced its peak, adding more colour and detail. Yup, there it is. My mountain with a big sun rising up behind it.
My 2016 quest involves two big themes:
- Love. This is bigger love than romantic love. I want to learn about the love that makes the world go around and how to love more fully each day. At work I want to focus on relationships, building community, and affirming a sense of belonging for our staff and students.
- Strength and agility. This is about health and self-care. I want to become stronger and more agile. I want to eat and move and sleep more–learning how to become a tenacious Jedi inside and out. At work I want to focus on being a good principal, a source of strength for those who need support, and to model work/life balance.
To climb a mountain in 2016 means to take ourselves to our limits in whatever we choose to pursue. To climb a mountain involves careful planning and execution. It’s about intention. It’s about changing our perspectives along the way and fully embodying changes.
My goals for this year are to explore these themes with the intensity of a climber. I’ve learned that New Year’s resolutions are not so much about what we choose but about how we pursue our goals. It’s about action.
Last year my metaphor was a spiral so I was able to just go through the days, keeping my eyes open for the themes, gently reaching out to lessons as they passed by. The mountain suggests a more rigorous approach. 2016 is a year of action.
Why do I want to work hard this year?
Maybe it’s turning 40. Maybe it’s because I’m a workaholic. Maybe it’s because I don’t have children and I try to find other ways to contribute meaningfully to our world. Maybe it’s because I’ve learned that showing up when things are tough pays off. Climbing a mountain brings a level of focus and determination that I need to see the work through.
Reading Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth had a profound impact on me in 2015. Hadfield reminded me of the importance of problem solving. We identify an issue and then we work the problem. So when I sat down to write my resolutions for 2016 I reflected on: What problems do I want to solve in my life? What problems do I want to solve at work? What problems do I want to solve through my writing?
In today’s world of high speed entertainment, mobile social networks, and constant leisure options we live in a distracted place. I don’t know when there was a time in history when it was so easy to escape. We are escaping each other and we are escaping ourselves.
In 2016 I want to resist the lure of escape. I want to work hard at understanding love because I worry about our culture of escape and leisure. Research consistently suggests that technology (despite it’s many benefits) affects human connections and relationships. The more time I spend online or in front of the television, the less time I spend engaging in what it means to be human.
When I was an English teacher students read Ray Bradbury’s The Veldt. It was a haunting story about a futuristic house that cared for two children. When the parents “unplug” the house, the children turn on the parents, feeling more connected to the virtual reality than reality. Early in my career students could not identify with the children. Now with each new development in technology, children are becoming more addicted to their devices. We are getting closer to this desperate dependence on technology. I want to fight the urge to disconnect and work hard to connect.
Love is the force.
When we are young we take strength for granted. We put everything else first, then if there is time we sleep well, eat a healthy meal, and exercise. For many in my generation, this type of self-care is reserved for when we are on vacation. I get it now. To be able to give anything to anyone we love we need to have the strength to do so. Strength is not an entitlement. Working hard to prioritize health is essential.
What are your resolutions for 2016? How will you pursue them?
Today I spent a lot of time reflecting on community healing and peace building…then I wrote this poem.
Once in a while I want to write a self-indulgent post about nothing. It hits like a craving for chocolate. Snuggled in my favourite chair with a cup of tea I type just to hear the sound of my fingers pushing on the keys, watching to see which thoughts appear. Where will this post go? I wonder. And I’m sure my readers wonder too. (Is it important to ALWAYS know where we are going?)
Sometimes I want to write just for the sake of writing, just to feel like I AM WRITING. Ideas and phrases move through my mind like smoke. What a blessing to write for writing’s sake! What a blessing to enjoy this practice enough that I find it relaxing to write about nothing.
At work, primary students have been reading and writing in my office. It amazes me how much work it takes for them to read or write each word. The children delight in finding meaning when they read, they want to read to me to celebrate their progress, to have a witness to the miracle of words. Even though it is hard for them, they persevere, pushing each word from their lips as they trace below it with their finger.
Today a student was having a tough time controlling his emotions. While we reflected on the conflict he said, “there was something inside of me that just had to come out.”
Maybe when I crave time with the page it’s because there is something that needs to come out–not really a big dark cloud or locked away story but a surge of everyday life and feelings and ideas. When we write we make connections. Sometimes when I write it’s not to express emotion but to empower insight.
I could write about nothing every day. The appeal for blogging is that there is space for “blog spam,” permission to indulge in this type of stream of consciousness exploration. And when others do it I find it fascinating to read. Maybe it’s in this type of free-falling style that readers can see glimpses of the truth behind the writer, the truth within ourselves. Maybe sometimes writing shouldn’t be designed and outlined for an audience but a relaxed, unplanned release of whatever the day has caught.
My wish for children is to find peace in words, to reach a level of mastery that allows them to write about nothing whenever they like.
When was the last time you opened your mind and let writing take you away?
Technology gives us the ability to learn nearly anything. I love that we can access information, processes, and thinking that for many centuries was available only to few. Technology is taking the lid off learning and redefining education.
There is a major shift in the ways we can learn about anything at anytime happening right now! Today. Part of it is due to the evolution of our electronic devices and part of the shift is due to how educators are using the technology to create learning platforms.
John Hattie says that “the computer is not the teacher.” My iPad doesn’t make me smarter, but how I use my iPad could change my life. Innovative teachers are using technology to make the world their classroom and providing access to learning experiences for anyone with a device and Internet connection. Our traditions in education need to change too!
This list is big. Be sure to take it in slowly, coming back to try another hyperlink. I thought about sharing fewer links but changed my mind. One of the best things about online learning is choice. There are so many choices out there!
Here are 7 amazing learning experiences online:
- Google. Most people use Google to research, but are you maximizing what Google can do? Did you know that Google algorithms predict what you are looking for so your search results may be different than someone else’s? Did you know that Google has country codes? Take a free online Google course in Power Searching or Advanced Power Searching or use Google Search Operators to broaden your options. I promise you will find things you didn’t even know were out there!
- Free or very low cost Virtual Schools. Earn Ontario high school credits through the Independent Learning Centre or in the United States try Stanford University High School. But this is the one that has me most excited: Take free online courses from the world’s best universities through edX, a site that has the super power of Harvard, MIT, and other education heavy weights.
- Online workshops, tutorials, and webinars. A number of fabulous sites are popping up with outstanding learning opportunities. From Lynda.com that offers online video tutorials to Udemy that offers more than 32,000 online courses, the opportunities to learn are vast. And many teachers are utilizing these platforms to expand their classrooms. I love that I can create a course on Udemy too (I’ll have to add that to my bucket list). A favourite of many high school teachers is Khan Academy where there is a diverse collection of lessons on a range of subjects (Math, Science, Computer Programming, History, Art, Economics, etc).
- Industry specific professional organizations. In Education there are a number of amazing places to go to learn and connect with educators around the world. The articles posted through ASCD are awesome and if you’re like me and too busy to visit the site, it will come to you. You can follow them on Facebook or Twitter so their articles appear in your feed. From collaborative blogs (Connected Principals) to MOOCs to resource databases like Edugains, quality professional learning is no longer limited to which workshops you attend on a PA Day. Seek out your industry’s top learning sites.
- Social Media. I learn a lot from Facebook and Twitter because I try to find people and companies to follow that have something that I need to know. Or I use social media to connect with and engage with other educators. Twitter has some great chat feeds. I really like #amwriting to connect with other writers. My favourites in education are: #onted, #ontedleaders, and #edchat. Many groups will designate a night when everyone is online. You put the hashtag into the search box and follow/respond to each other. Twitter interviews are also becoming common, where an expert is asked questions by a host as well as anyone else who joins in the discussion. Find out where your people are (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc) and connect. (I find Twitter or Pinterest are the best places to connect with educators right now).
- Technology tools can make learning easier. A current trend in education is blended learning, where some of the learning happens with technology and some of the learning happens face-to-face. Whenever I explore the tools to use with classroom learning my eyes pop out! Truly. Check out Diigo, a site that helps you sort, tag, annotate, and share research. Verso helps to give every student in your class a voice. Edsby is an amazing learning management system our board has just started using. Prism promotes collaborative interpretation of texts and would have been a dream when I was teaching English. The WayBack Machine allows you access news from the day an event happened. Wolfram Alpha is incredible too–it will solve any Math problem and can answer questions in a variety of other subjects. WRITERS: you will love Wolfram Alpha!!!!!
- Text, audio or video content sharing sites. I’ve always been a big fan of Audible for downloading audio books–for me it’s always non-fiction. I’ve recently discovered Sound Cloud a site with lots of new music and podcasts. YouTube has always been a go-to, especially when I get stuck with my technology. There is always a video to bail me out. Blogs are more popular than ever and by subscribing to the ones I love, updates appear in my email inbox. Many people love article collecting apps like Zite or Instapaper or Flipboard too.
1) Begin with a question
Why does the moss cover parts of the tree trunk? Inquiry is as simple as a single question. When we see the world through questions we welcome learning into our lives. It is easy to say that children are naturally curious, but why are some children more curious than others? Why do some six year olds ask about moss on the tree and others didn’t even notice the tree?
Inquiry begins with a question, yes–but where do questions come from?
Pablo Picasso said “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” In the Information Age questions are more important than ever. How often do you ask questions? What impact do your questions have on what you need to know or what you do next?
Someone once told me about a book called Change Your Questions, Change Your Life. Are questions really so powerful?
This week I’ve been thinking about how we can create the conditions for curiosity:
- Attention and focus: Like the girl in the picture, questions are often found when we pay attention to details. I try to look for questions with more enthusiasm than I look for answers.
- Engagement: Writers often say “write what you know.” But I prefer the twist that says, “write what you’re interested in then go out and know it.” Where there is engagement, there are questions!
- Practice: Ask questions every day. It can be a mind flip to ask questions and it takes time to be able to develop good ones. I find I need to ask a dozen (or more) questions to get to one really good one.
Before I can ask a question I need to pay attention, I need to be engaged and interested, and I need to know what a good question looks like.
2) Ask more questions over time
My friend Tom shared with me a project he used with children to spark curiosity about trees. First he made some kits with magnifying glasses, tape measures, paper/pencil, etc. Then students selected a tree to track for the year, noting their questions and observations as the seasons passed.
He said the questions started with the obvious ones like what kind of tree is this? How big is it? How would I describe it? Then the students went deeper to ask what insects live in this tree? Which birds visit this tree? Why is my tree different from my classmate’s tree?
What started as a simple task turned into an inquiry into trees, developing the children’s appreciation for biology and an understanding of learning.
Tom calls it “OGY”–the last three letters in so many of the sciences. He says it like this: “oh gee why?”
I love this. When children express an interest in something I can ask “oh gee, why?”
Sally says, “There is a squirrel in that tree.”
“Oh, gee. Why?” I’d ask. That one simple question has the potential to spark a multitude of questions. It’s a simple question we can use to spark curiosity in ourselves and in others.
I’ve found that the more I learn, the less I seem to know. Things change for me over time and my questions always get better.
Years ago I started with the question, “why is my blog named Sunshine in a Jar?” The search turned into my Master’s thesis and now my life’s work. As our understanding changes, so do our questions.
3) Share your questions with others
Last week we had an amazing conference for principals and vice principals in our school board. Alan November, author of Who Owns the Learning, challenged us to think about how we are using technology in schools. Here are some key messages from his talk:
- “Global relationships may be the most powerful use of technology.”
- “What’s the most important skill of a learner in the age of the Internet? Teach students how to ask the most interesting questions.”
- “The real revolution is not technology: it’s information. What information do we need?”
The Internet is redefining our circle of influence. A number of years ago I began some research into my family tree. I wondered why my grandfather lived on an island in Georgian Bay in a lighthouse. Why does someone become a lighthouse keeper? Why were my relatives keepers for so many years?
Using my available resources, including family members and online databases, I searched for a year. Then I shared my questions and my findings with family. It turns out some of them had the same questions too. However, the best news was that someone had the French language skills I lacked to interpret documents that puzzled me. We found a fascinating ancestor named Ezekiel Solomon, the first Jewish man to live in Michigan, a fur trader who was a rival to the Northwest Trading Company and Hudson’s Bay prior to his capture by Pontiac (although he survived, his wealth did not).
I shared my questions again…and the questions that followed the first, turning it into a blog post. Now I was able to reach outside of my family and immediate circle to connect with ancestors across North America. At least once a month I receive emails or comments from people trying to learn more about Ezekiel Solomon. We share our findings and our questions. Last week I learned that his story is being turned into curriculum for the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan and students will be invited to visit my site to explore the comments from Ezekiel’s ancestors. What began as a post about my questions and learning has now expanded into a record of what others have learned, of how strangers are connected.
Like November stated, technology enabled me to develop relationships from learners seeking similar information, pursuing similar questions. The technology supported the sharing of information and generated new information through all the comments. This really excites me!!
And by sharing my questions, I opened the door for others to add questions, sparking curiosity in me for things I hadn’t thought about.
Sharing enriches learning.
4) Connect your questions with other questions
Make connections. I’ve watched a lot of great television and movies this summer. In nearly every crime story there is a scene where the detective lays out all the evidence, all the questions spread in front of him/her, and uses the display to generate more questions through the art of making connections.
I like to capture the questions, get them down on the page, or on cards, grabbing what facts I can and adding them to the mix. And then play like the detectives do, formulating hypotheses, the “what if” questions and “theory of action” statements.
5) Use the arts
One of my favourite quotes is from Emily Dickinson: “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” The arts provide natural links to curiosity. The arts show a way to ask and explore questions from multiple perspectives. We began this post looking at inquiry through the eyes of a scientist, but artists are very similar. Artists require attention, engagement, practice, and “oh gee whys” too.
Innovation. Creation. Question. Each word ends in “ion,” a suffix related to action. I like to use the arts as an approach to inquiry because it is an active way to pursue an idea. Otherwise the idea floats around in my head without much progress.
I am so excited about the buzz in education about inquiry. If you are struggling to tap into your “natural curiosity” then bring in the arts. The arts will open inquiry up–it works every time for me.
This is a watercolour painting I made when I first started thinking about the phrase “sunshine in a jar.”
Then I explored it again using collage a few years later:
And then again a few years after that (note how the ideas are changing as I change). By this example, the jar isn’t even part of the creation as I discovered the important part is what is inside the jar:
6) Use a formal process
One of my learning goals this year is to develop my skills in facilitating group inquiries, or as we call them in Ontario education, Collaborative Inquiry. Last year I participated in an Intensive Literacy Project, a collaborative inquiry (CI) that involved three tiers of learning: student, teacher, and principal. It was among the most impactful professional learning of my career.
Jenni Donohoo put together a fabulous book called Collaborative Inquiry for Educators: A Facilitator’s Guide for School Improvement. This year I hope to work through the ideas in her book with the hope of engaging my staff in purposeful learning.
She outlines the process with four key stages:
- Framing the problem
- Collecting evidence
- Analyzing evidence
- Documenting, Sharing, and Celebrating
7) Document your findings
How we end a cycle is as important as how we begin it. Documentation is part of consolidating our learning. When I took singing lessons as a teen, after I had learned a song, my singing teacher tapped me on the head and said: “Now put that into your personal computer up there.” But singing was never about what was going on in my head–when I had truly learned the song it was less about technical precision and more about embodiment. To remember a song, I didn’t focus on the words or the notes even. I reflected on how the song felt in my body, where the notes moved and vibrated, how I had connected to the story of the song to my story. I documented the experience of the song through feeling, an intentional recall of the sensations of singing/experiencing the song.
Documentation is so much more than a report. It’s a way to let the learning set into your body the way a song does. Even as I write this post, documenting my thinking about inquiry, I can feel my thinking changing. Not a lot. But my thinking is simultaneously gaining confidence and asking new questions sparked from the experience of writing.
I love, love, love pedagogical documentation. The phrasing can be alienating but the idea is simple: document learning in order to learn from the documentation.
Our Grade One class last year learned all about responsibility through reading various texts. The teacher tracked the student thinking related to the theme on the wall (see pic below). Then the students visited the wall to reflect on their thinking/learning as the term progressed, adding insights as they developed. In the end the students made a video showing their learning about responsibility to share with the Kindergarten class. The documentation wasn’t just about noting what the Grade Ones were learning, but it was about using their voice and ideas as the spark for more learning–for this class and another class. Beautiful!!
It’s time. I’m ready. I want to take the lid off learning. My learning. And I want to do it so that you might feel brave enough to take the lid off your learning too. Are you in? Shall we do it together?
I feel a big shift happening in education where the culture is saying it’s okay for school leaders to share our thinking, to connect with each other using technology, to bravely publish via social media and blogs. There is an amazing conversation happening online among educators around the world.
This week I’m attending a fabulous conference, the Technology-Enabled Learning and Leading Institute 2015 for Principals and Vice Principals. The room radiates promise for the future of education. Now it’s about action. Change doesn’t start tomorrow. It needs to start today. What am I going to do about it? What role do I want to play?
It’s time to expand my blog to encompass my professional realm with more intention.
How can we actively engage in learning?
I spent a lot of time this summer reflecting on my next steps as a learner. My goals are to start the intentional journey to becoming a “learning engineer,” to be more daring, to learn from influential teachers, and to let my inner geek have free range to binge learn.
Three Problems I Want to Solve (with your help!!)
- Fast learning vs. slow learning: How do we move from fast learning to slow learning? How can we narrow our focus and learn more deeply? How can we move past the resistance to critical thinking? How can we turn down the easy solutions and sometimes choose the more arduous thinking path?
- Time to be awesome: Learning leads to awesome, and learning is awesome. How do we find time to understand learning and development? How do we track transformation? How can we move our interest in things to a commitment to understanding things better?
- Abstract vs. concrete: How do we explore process and practice at the same time without overcomplicating things? How do we leverage motivation, engagement, and empowerment? What are the best ways to integrate personal and professional learning? Do Zen learning practices exist and where can we find them?
So what is this blog about?
For years I had trouble synthesizing what my “Sunshine in a Jar” blog was about but now I see it clearly. It’s about learning. It has always been about learning.
When we take the lid off the jar, we open ourselves up to change. It symbolizes freedom. We can let things out or put things in. It’s up to the keeper of the jar. I’ve always seen “sunshine in a jar” as being a metaphor for our inner landscape. So what does the inner landscape of our learning look like? When we take the lid off and look inside, what do we see?
Learning goes beyond schools and the workplace. So often we compartmentalize our personal and professional learning but I truly believe that is too restrictive. I am a whole person and all my learning impacts everything I do, regardless of where the learning happens and its initial purpose. Learning is organic, living, moving, and too powerful to be contained in separate jars or separate selves. Learning is potentially in everything, everywhere, and all the time when we pay attention. We are what we learn and what we learn is part of all of us, our whole selves as individuals and collectively as humans.
I hope you’ll join me as I write about my learning at home and at school. Learning is about relationship and connection–it’s about us. Let’s take the lid off our learning and share our observations and insights!
Learning Big Lessons
We all learn from our parents. For many of us, parents are our first teachers and our most influential teachers. I’ve worked with so many families over the years and whatever the family story, whether the parents are very present or very absent, children learn big lessons. And we learn from every experience and encounter with our parents, things that can hurt us and things that can heal us, things that take us backward and things that move us forward.
It’s time to take stock and reflect. Grab a sheet of paper and a pen. Brainstorm as many things you’ve learned from your parents that you can remember. Include little things like how to fold a pillow case or how to drive a car and include big things like how to work hard or how to prioritize family. It may be easiest to start with your earliest memory.
When you have a good sized list, choose a couple items to unpack, listing all the learnings that connect to that one item. I learned so much (and continue to do so) from my mom and dad. Today I am going to write about what I learned from Mom and her homemade butter tarts.
This is the second article in a series about Influential Teachers.
Mom learned how to cook and bake from her parents…
Mom grew up in Northern Ontario watching her French-Canadian mother cook and bake. Grandma was famous for her blueberry pie, blancmange, chicken and dumplings, hamburgers with stuffing in the middle, swiss steak, sauce aux salmon, and of course tourtierre at Christmastime. Grandma always made her own pastry and was a master cake decorator. Grandma grew up watching her father, Olivier Charron, cooking in a boarding house along the Still River for coal dock workers in Britt, Ontario.
Grandpa cooked sometimes too when Grandma was at work at Silverman’s Department Store in Sudbury (outfitting miners with uniforms). FYI: Grandpa’s classic dish was pork chops and french fries.
It was great-Aunt Florence who was a good tart maker when Mom was a child. Grandma may have made tarts, but Mom remembers more about Grandma’s pies. Grandma would make five pies at a time, her apple pies were the best. For years my grandparents had five cabins on their property in Britt that they rented to tourists. Grandma would give away pies to their favourite guests, much to my great-grandmother’s shock, horror, and descriptive disapproval in angry French.
We learn a lot about food from our parents.
Mom took Home Economics in high school and it quickly became her favourite class…
The first thing Mom remembers ever cooking was for my dad when they were dating. Mom was about 18 years old. It was at Grandma’s house. Mom made a dish from her Home Ec class for her guy with shrimp, rice, green peppers, and melted cheese.
When I asked Dad this question, he says the first thing Mom ever cooked was a jar of Aunt Muriel’s “Chow-Chow Chilli” heated in a saucepan shortly after they were married. Although “chilli” was in the title it was actually a salsa meant to be a condiment: far too spicy to be eaten by the bowlful!
From my childhood, I remember Mom’s homemade pizza, cinnamon buns, blueberry pie, and butter tarts. Mom is an amazing cook and baker–everything she makes is filled with the best ingredients, careful preparation, and love.
The first time Mom made butter tarts she was in her mid-twenties, after Grandma died. Her neighbour and best friend, Cathy, gave her a list of tart making ingredients from a Kinette Cookbook over the phone.
Every Friday Mom and Cathy would bake while us kids were napping. Cathy taught Mom how to make bread and German food (gulasch, knochlen, kipferl cookies) and Christmas fruitcakes. Mom wanted to learn how to make tarts so naturally she called Cathy.
Using the list of tart ingredients, Mom made her first butter tarts and they were good! The tart obsession started slowly. By the time Mom was in her thirties she would come home from working all day to make 40 butter tarts and 24 cinnamon buns for the staff at her school the next day. (And she’d make dinner!)
Mom became known by all of us as the Queen of Tarts.
When Mom was in her forties, she lost her tart recipe. For over a decade we were tart-less! She prayed to St. Anthony for years, searching the house for her list of ingredients. Then in 2012 her prayers were answered. Mom found our beloved tart recipe in a kitchen drawer she had checked many times before. Now that Dad was retired he became the sous chef. Mom and Dad make butter tarts on rainy days. Together they have perfected tart making!
Queen of Tart Legends:
- Recently Mom and Dad made 120 tarts for a friend’s retirement and it took 2 days, 27 cups of flour, 3 pounds of butter, and 24 cups of brown sugar, 24 eggs…
- About 15 years ago, Mom and I had a baking exchange party with all our friends. Not long into the party we noticed that the tarts were missing. The exchange hadn’t officially started yet. We never did find the two dozen tarts. One of our friends had stolen them all!! No one at the party confessed.
- Mom donated two plates of tarts to a senior’s bake sale. Dad mentioned to a friend that Mom’s tarts were there. The friend declared she must covet the tarts but alas the tarts were sold quickly and gone. The buyer offered to sell a plate of tarts for three times the bake sale cost ($18)…
- Mom and Dad often give tarts to helpful people, local photographers, OPP, their priest. My favourite story though is about the tart they gave to a Bell Canada worker in the area. When they needed support the following year a new worker was dispatched and knew about the tart the previous guy received.
- Dad often brings a random tart out to the road for people passing that he knows (unless family is visiting because we eat all the tarts!)
- After my cousin’s wedding, before the post-wedding brunch, my uncle’s brother hid the butter tarts from his own family, including the bride and groom.
- Sometimes when Mom and Dad bring tarts to an event the host hides them (so they don’t have to be shared with the guests).
- Sometimes at a potluck the tarts are eaten before the meal as the appe-tarter!
- For their forty-second wedding anniversary Mom and Dad made tarts. Then they arranged the tarts into a “42.” (Also note that they usually make 42 tarts in a batch).
Five Things I’ve Learned from Mom and Her Tarts
- Heart: Mom makes tarts to show her love. (She doesn’t even eat the tarts!) The butter tarts are a sign of her generosity, talent, and kindness. She enjoys making the people around her happy. Mom teaches me the importance of putting heart at the centre, of giving our best to others, of creating something excellent to spread joy and express gratitude.
- Attention to Detail: Mom attends to perfecting each step in the tart making process. She inspects everything along the way, reflecting on how to make it better. By attending to every small detail, her tarts are absolute perfection each and every time she bakes them. Mom teaches me the importance of being methodical, following a plan, adjusting the plan when needed, and learning from the plan as time passes.
- Community: Mom uses tarts to bring people together. From family and friends to community groups to passersby, mom creates a sense of belonging by giving away butter tarts. Mom teaches me how to connect with others through generosity and to give the most to the people who are closest and part of our every day. It’s important to use our skills and talents in the service of building community and belonging.
- Practice: Mom worked hard to become an amazing cook and baker. She asked for help when she needed it. She utilized the lessons from her teachers. Mom teaches me that if we practice something, we will improve. If we practice it long enough, we can become experts. She chose to perfect her butter tart making not because it was her favourite thing to bake, but because of the joy the tarts brought others. Every year Mom and Dad continue to adjust the butter tart baking process to improve efficiency and excellence.
- Embrace the Crown: Mom has earned her crown as Queen of Tarts and she wears it with pride. It’s important to celebrate our achievements and to accept the compliments of others. Mom teaches me to take pride in my creations, to make space for others to celebrate, and to happily wear a crown when it’s been earned.
Questions in the Jar
Mom answered three questions pulled from my 50 Questions in a Jar so we could get to know her better.
Q: If you could eliminate one type of bug forever, which one would you choose?
Mom: Mosquito. Or deer flies. The last two times I went in the boat I got bit. You don’t feel them biting and then you itch like crazy after.
Q: If you were to be a matchmaker, which two celebrities would you match together?
Mom: That’s a hard one. I guess I’ll just say Tom Cruise and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Q: Where do you go to have fun?
Mom: Florida. There is less cooking and more eating out. I get to wear shorts all the time. And of course the shopping.
Mom’s Butter Tart Recipe
The recipe should be enough to make 42 butter tarts.
- 8 cups brown sugar
- 8 large eggs (whisked together)
- 2 cups melted butter
- 2 cups good quality raisins (soak in hot water for 15 minutes before using)
- 4 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 8 tablespoons white vinegar
Mix all the above ingredients together well. Keep mixing it right up until you put it in the tart shells as the ingredients separate if they sit.
Mom uses Tenderflake lard, a whole pound, mixing up the whole package of dough. (Recipe is on the Tenderflake package). Divide the dough into six balls and wrap individually into plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least an hour before rolling. Leave the balls of dough in the fridge until just before rolling.
Bake on mid to low (but not bottom) oven rack in a preheated 375 degree oven about 15-20 minutes or until pastry is brown and filling is bubbling.
Let stand to cool before removing from muffin pans, as filling is very hot.
These butter tarts freeze well.