There’s a kind of watershed when it comes to memory. Too close to an event, you can’t really process it; too far, and you start to lose the nuance of the experience. I feel that I’ve come to that point in my memories of Overland. I’m finding ways to articulate things better than I could when I was immersed in that world, but I sense that if I wait any longer, I will no longer be able to truly capture the experience. It’s already starting to happen with the Overland Heyday stories. My semantic memory of that time is pretty good, but the episodic is becoming vague and generalized. I can write about how Overland made me feel, and I have done so here and here and here and this whole series. However, I can’t really capture what it felt like to teach a particular class. That teacher is so different from the person I am now that we can’t even talk to each other.
I became aware of the fading of these memories as I wrote this article. The story is set in the Later Overland era, but even so, I realized that the scene was already slipping away from me, and that if I was going to write this, it should be now.
This originally started as a set piece that I was working on for a very pragmatic reason: I needed something halfway serious to do while I was supervising a test. In other words, I didn’t want the students to see that telltale shade of blue radiating from my screen. It’s a response to the imagined prompt: Talk about a lesson that you are particularly proud of. This is actually a series of lessons leading up to a pizza lunch, although the pizza lunch itself was distinctly underwhelming.
Two events precipitated this series. There was a famine in East Africa, and schools around the city were raising funds for relief efforts The TDSB had offered to match any funds raised. Around the same time, TIFF screened the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc , which articulated the first quiet suggestion of criticism of the breast cancer awareness campaign.
I used an audio clip from a radio interview with the producers of the film and located some print background material. The class compared the different resources and discussed the ethics and practice of charitable donation. I was so impressed with the interaction, the level of sophistication and engagement, that I decided to extend the conversation. It seemed like an ideal lead-in to a fundraising activity.
So I devised a series of lessons in the course of which the students would to choose a charity to donate to, publicize the cause and the event, and then perform the actual fund-raiser.
Students worked in groups. The first task was to identify a cause that they considered important. They then researched the aid groups that targeted that particular group or problem.** Students worked together to prepare an information sheet on their chosen organization and its mission. Through discussion, they identified the arguments for and against choosing the organization as the recipient of our funds.
Each group shared their information with the class. We then discussed the relative merits of the different programs. There was a real range of knowledge and experience: some students were thinking critically about these issues for the first time; others had experienced directly the situations at which the aid was directed; still others had worked with the NGOs we were discussing**.
The students worked hard to determine the group that best matched their values, and ended up choosing MSF. Key factors were the effectiveness of their programs, the absence of geographical restrictions, and the transparency of their mission.
The next step was to create the print publicity. We discussed the basics of poster making and the need for balance between attracting attention and relaying information. We talked about how to make the content appealing and accessible, and about why it was a bad idea to copy and paste chunks of material from the internet. We then negotiated the logistics of getting access to the only colour printer in the school, and posted the documents.
In the week before the actual day we broadcast the information over the PA system. Normally strong, confident speakers volunteer to read an English script. It is challenging, but it is very valuable experience, especially for students who plan to undergo the ordeal of the TOEFL Speaking Test.
Earlier that term, however, one of the other teachers, Glenn, had experimented with bilingual broadcasts (Spanish and English) for soccer team announcements. We decided to take it one step further and provide announcements in languages that reflected the school population. There was a discussion as to which languages should be used; then strong speakers were chosen from each of the dominant language groups. They decided on the key details of the message and then wrote out two versions, in English and translated. They worked with a partner from the same country to make sure that the translated version was smooth and accurate.
Watching the delivery of these PA messages was fascinating. When the students switched into their native languages, it was as if they had slipped on new clothes. Their voices were stronger; even their body language became more assured: it was yet one more reminder that these students had really been persons of stature in their original countries. I enjoyed watching the reactions of the students from other classes: that slight double take when they realized they were hearing their mother tongue. The announcements generated inter-class discussions: comparisons of the sounds of the different languages, and the dialects and accents within individual languages, and suggestions that other languages be included.***
The pizza lunch itself was, as I said, anticlimactic. The scheduling made it difficult for the students to be involved in the actual serving; other events had made the day unusually chaotic; and well nobody really likes pizza that much anyway. Later on, I was told that we had missed the deadline for the fund matching, but ours would not have been matched anyway because we had not chosen to earmark the funds for East Africa.****
So as an actual fundraising event, this was not an amazing success. However, it’s one of those moments I come back to when I want to remind myself of the enormous wealth of talent, intelligence and experience that I encountered every day in the Overland classroom. It keeps me humble , at the same time as it strengthens my belief in the benefits of an open immigration policy.
When I look back on that, and notice what year it was, I realize that I was already halfway out the door at Overland, but I didn’t see it at the time. Sometimes a peak experience like this gives us renewed vigour for our job, but it can also be bittersweet. When you realize that yes this is as good as it gets, no matter how good that good is, it may be a signal that it’s time to move on.
* Students often became aware of an asymmetry between need and services, sometimes because a problem did not have a clear and coherent solution, sometimes because the cause just was not as media friendly. The essential unfairness of the marketing of the more glamorous causes at the expense of others became a key consideration in our discussions. This was one of the factors in our decision not to choose an event-specific charity: we wanted the organization to spend the money where it was most needed, not where the media attention was most focussed.
**For example, one student was a former member of Veterinarians Without Borders, which in not nearly as cute and cuddly as you might think.
***There was an interesting contrast among the language groups. Some students were quite eager to have their language represented. In contrast, one language was fairly widely featured at Overland, but its speakers were hesitant to present it as one of the school languages. There was no obvious political reason for this: it was more a matter of the particular character of the country in question. If you speak the language yourself, you might be able to guess which one I’m talking about.
**** As part of our decision was based on avoiding ear-marked charities, I can’t say I really regret this.