It's all about the narrative



We’re Starting a Library (part 2) — The Soft Launch

What happens when the planning from Part 1 is put into practice.

Behold the Summer Program Little Free Library!

It cleans up nice– book capacity and visibility could be better, but it serves.



There were some initial misunderstandings about the function of the cart, but they were quickly resolved

There were more substantial obstacles to my original plan.  I had wanted to wheel the cart from classroom to classroom, arriving at the exact moment when the instructor needed support for their extensive reading module.  However, rolling from classroom to classroom doesn’t work when your building looks like this

The frequent flights of stairs do make the space more interesting and human-scale, but they are not well suited to anyone trying to manoeuvre a wheeled object.

Also, this is the third week of a four-week program.  Not everyone can finish reading a book in one week, especially in one’s second language, and especially when one has to keep on going on boat cruises and things like that.  The original plan could make for undue stress on program students and perhaps some very overdue library books.

So here’s the Plan B — the Soft Launch.

The Little Library will be placed in the shared student area tomorrow with the following sign on the wall above it



We will observe and record what happens, perhaps videotape it if things get interesting.  It’s action research!  It’s street theatre!  It’ll be like the O Canada Beer Fridge Experiment!

We still have next month to figure out how to get the cart up those stairs.


We’re Starting a Library (part 1)

I think the seed was sown about 5 years ago in a Youth Toefl class.  A  student asked for a book to read in her spare time. I was a little surprised at this: this request was probably the first time she had addressed me directly.  In fact, I had hardly heard her voice at all. She was young for the class (only 14) and not particularly interested in the social dramas that were taking place around her.  All in all, she seemed a little lost.

I thought , “Why not — even if the book doesn’t help, the action of bringing it in will show that someone’s paying attention,” went home and realized that I had shelves of YA novels that my kids had recently outgrown.  Rather than impose my own choice on her, I shoved them all into an Ikea bag (librarians wince!) and brought them in.  I left them lying around the classroom and the student quietly worked her way through them.

At the end of the session, this apparently disengaged student wrote a note about how much she had enjoyed her time in Toronto.  She specifically mentioned the books (I think the word “wonderland” featured somewhere in that sentence.)

This got me thinking.  The summer program is very much geared to extroverts —  every minute of the students’ days is planned for interactive and communicative language learning. I get it:  immersive language programs don’t work if the participants just sit in their rooms reading fantasy novels.  However, many writers on introversion have pointed out that introverts do better if they can have time alone to recharge.  Having English language books available would give them a way of doing that without completely disconnecting from the program.

I let that sit for a while, but I’m back at the Summer Program this year and I’ve been thinking about ways to enrich the student experience.

Driving to work through the Annex, seeing all the Little Free Libraries in their charming library houses

jogged this memory a little, and I thought, ” Why not start a Little Free Library here at the summer program?”

I sent round an email to the instructors asking for books, attempting to present this as an opportunity for a KonMari experience.  Books have been trickling in

Well admittedly, 80% of these are from my basement, but still…

and it’s been quite a revelation to see who produces what.

I’m still working on the actual structure.  It turns out that the little bookhouses people set up on street corners cost $350 if you order them ready-made.  While I think that building one would be an excellent class project for the more hyperkinetic 12 year-olds, no teacher has volunteered.  I think we’re going to resort to this:  it’s bright and jolly; it will provide good book visibility, and it’s on wheels.

Next step: clean up the structure, find a new home for the toys, and somehow transport it to school.




The ickiness of moral courage

About a week ago, I wrote a letter to Kathleen Wynne.  At first I had intended to send it only to her,  but I eventually decided to post it as an open letter as well.  Here’s part of the reason why:

So I’m a huge Kathleen Wynne fan — let’s get that out of the way right now.   When I first encountered her, she was my enemy, the management rep in a TDSB strike.  Even then, though, I wondered to myself, “Who is that whippet-bodied woman in the tight fitting jacket?”  After that, I got to know and like her through her involvement with Overland Learning Centre.  It was a strange feeling watching her ascent, to MPP, to Party Leader, to premier, to majority election winner.  We rejoiced at each step, but we were never really surprised.  It just seemed the logical outcome, given her obvious drive, strength of character, and political acumen — that was just who Kathleen was.

But now we’re in 2018.

I guess I had been distracted, but suddenly there was an election coming and Kathleen’s unpopularity had become axiomatic. Even though each interview and press conference showed the old Kathleen that I knew,  the press seemed to have endowed her with a new persona, often associated with the collocation “deeply unpopular.”

It was like with Hillary, but worse in a way.  Nobody I actually knew uttered the words “But her emails.. ”  at least in my presence.  Now, however,  I have to contend daily with people sharing their conviction that Kathleen is a) corrupt or b) ruinously extravagant, or c) some paradoxical combination of the two.  It’s become a commonplace of daily discourse, second only to the opinion that it’s pretty fucking cold out for June, eh?

I just felt miserable.  Intellectually, I was convinced this was wrong, but how could it be when so many people “knew” it was true?  Had I missed something?  But I went over the details of Ontario government actions under Kathleen, and nothing really stood out, nothing that would have indicated a change in her character or style of governance.  The cognitive dissonance was so painful. Not just intellectually: it generated a feeling of shame.  How did I end up in the unpopular crowd?  If so many people, many of whom I respected, held these views, maybe there was something wrong with me.  But I did nothing to resolve this.  I felt immobile  – swaddled.

And then support came from the most unlikely of sources: Christie Blatchford published Smarter more Capable Kathleen Wynne Makes it Difficult to-see her Lose in the National Post (!). This was followed by John Barber’s Kathleen Wynne was the Premier we didn’t Deserve in the Toronto Star, and then a steady stream of too-little-too-late apologies.  I felt a little stronger — not so alone.  By election night, I was ready to say something.  “Don’t engage with the vitriol,” I told myself, “Just focus on what you know to be true.  And for god’s sake, keep it short.  You know that nobody reads wordy updates.”  So I posted it, right after Kathleen’s fabulous good-bye speech.

I received  a few comments and likes, but not necessarily from the people I hear from most often.  The responders were all women and all around my age.  A few messaged me privately, and it was clear from the ensuing conversations that their perception of Kathleen was very similar to my own. But where had their voices been?  How had the press come to the conclusion that Kathleen was universally unpopular when most of the people I was talking to still liked and respected her?  Why had none of them spoken up? Maybe they had felt lost and ashamed the way I did.

This is not about me, and it’s not even really about Kathleen.  I know she’ll be fine — eventually.  She’s a smart woman with a great family and a loyal base (Did you hear the love in the room during that last speech?) , and I’m sure that she has some money in the bank (although  probably not as much as Doug will have at the end of his term!).

It’s about that feeling, the paralysis that comes with cognitive dissonance and the stigma of unpopularity.  It does not feel comfortable to hold an opinion that differs from those of the people around you.  It takes not just courage, but a supreme effort of will to speak against the popular wisdom (and for that, Christie, I salute you, however much I may disagree with other positions you have taken).  It is so tempting to not push against the tide, to stifle your feeling that something is unfair or just wrong.

In this case, I lacked the courage to act until others had broken a trail, but even when I did speak out, I felt awkward and exposed.  The mere act of thinking differently from the people around me felt painful.  I had no concrete fear for my safety, or even for my reputation among my peers;  but on  a different level I felt deeply  unsafe. The action of severing oneself from one’s group  — even in thought — must violate some atavistic taboo.

I pushed back as much as I did because I know and like Kathleen.  If I am being honest with myself I have to admit that I might not have done it for someone else.  I might have just accepted the common opinion, even if it felt a little off base, because doing that was so much easier than pushing back against a tide of opinion.

So clearly we’re not just talking about a provincial election anymore. It’s about the need to belong, and how it can be so much stronger than the need to do what’s right. About a year ago, people began sharing the following meme:


I remember retweeting it, feeling excited and brave.  I would be that person.  I would fight back against injustice.  I would make a difference.

Now, I realize that it’s a lot more complicated than I thought.  The problem might not be having the courage to do the right thing, but having the courage to know what that right thing is.


Dear Kathleen


Hi Kathleen,

You won’t remember me, but we met a few times when you visited Overland Learning Centre. I’m writing to thank you for your service.

Watching you, I had the chance to see true leadership in action. I learned so much from observing you collaborate and problem solve and sow the seeds of political engagement in the new generation. This has made me bolder and clearer in my own goals, and it’s inspired so many other women as well.

These past few weeks have been the bravest I’ve ever seen you.   It must have been unbelievably difficult, but what you did was so valuable to the rest of us. It’s really important to show other women how to be strong in the face of defeat.  Of course it’s vital  that women attain success in fields previously reserved for men – we were over the moon when you became premier – but women also have to learn how not to crumble when they start to slip off that pedestal.  As Michelle Obama put it, “I wish that girls could fail as bad as men do, and be okay, because let me tell you, watching men fail up—it is frustrating.”

Over the past few months, you have shown us how to fail badly and be okay.  By “be okay,” I mean retain your composure, reaffirm your principles, and always sound like the smartest, most logical person in the room. By meeting failure head-on with unflinching honesty and even some humour, you demystified it, giving us all a little more courage.  When we fear failure less, we will be more daring, and glass ceilings everywhere will start to crack.

I wish I weren’t thanking you for this.  I wish I were writing to congratulate you on some new triumph, but each story has its own hero.  Thank you for being that person.

Joanna Warden


20,000 people -- a big crowd for those days
Toronto mourns Rev. Martin Luther King Barry Philp/Toronto Star April 9, 1968

I remember when Martin Luther King died.  My parents took me out of school and we went to Nathan Phillips Square and sang “We Shall Overcome.”

I remember running up and down that big ramp in front of CIty Hall, but that’s probably a false memory as I can’t imagine that I would have been allowed to do that.

It did look pretty inviting

I remember that very kid feeling of being bored and uncomfortable but at the same time knowing that this was something really really important.

I did enjoy the singing though.


Daily Prompt: Wonder

via Daily Prompt: Wonder 


Wasn’t that a Wonder? Finding Faith Part 2

So I’ve been working on the Amnesty International Feminist Wikipedia Takeover, and I ended up editing the page on Faith Nolan, an experience I wrote about in Finding Faith Part 1. As I started the post, I was assailed by  a memory,  vestigial yet so powerful.  I felt compelled to write about it.  It’s a little poetic for me –perhaps because I’ve been imbibing the stream of consciousness of Mike McCormack and the epiphanic prose of Adam Gopnik.  I was going to keep it to myself, but today’s DailyPost  prompt was “wonder” and it was just to synchronistic to ignore, so…

I remember going to see Faith Nolan….

It must have been the early 90s and Em was a pre-schooler.  We’d just moved back to Toronto, and I’d just started grad school at York.

I went with some friends from school.

Em was supposed to come with us, but she was sick, so she stayed home with her dad.  Being there without her felt disorienting, surreal even,

but at the same time,

I had this sense of wonder:

that we could go to a concert

but in the afternoon

and the music was  beautiful

but you could also hear the lyrics

and they were about stories

that we cared about

and my friends and I sat and talked about the stories

And I thought

what a wonderful world this is

where I can do these things

and every once in a while, I get this feeling again

and I think:

“Thank you, Faith Nolan — it is indeed a wonderful world”



Together We Can Change the Word: Finding Faith Part 1

Over the past week, I’ve had the chance to play at being a journalist — and an activitist, and a person-who-kind-of-knows-how-to-use-technology.  I’ve been participating in Amnesty International’s Feminist Wikipedia Takeover.

What we are doing is ensuring that Wikipedia is providing adequate representation of women.  There are ample statistics about the extent to which the management and editing of Wikipedia is male dominated, and this is an attempt to remedy the inevitable bias that comes with that.  Some people are adding new pages about notable women who are not yet represented.  Others are editing existing biographies.

In the editing, we are looking at two main things.  We are adding content, especially when the page fails to mention the political aspect of the subject’s career. However, we are also looking at the traditional editing concerns, writing errors and especially citation problems.  This is not just me being an English teacher — it’s really important that the statements be cited, and that the sources be reliable, or the page runs the risk of being deemed a stub and deleted. So, as I want to say to my students, citations are important, kids:  be sure you back up what you’re saying, or Wikipedia will erase you as a human being.

It’s been, like many important things, wildly exciting and intensely boring at the same time. It is an amazing feeling to be able to control the narrative of what is perhaps the most powerful disseminator of information on earth. At the same time, though, the process is meticulous and eye-strain-y, especially when you don’t check the instructions and end up with a screen full of code.*

The research itself is difficult, precisely because it excludes Wikipedia itself, which is where we go for our basic information, whether we like to admit it or not.  The other top source of information on a subject is often their own website, which is also off limits.  This means a lot of digging through archives, photocopies of print versions of newspaper articles,  and stray mentions found through library searches..

I drifted through the suggested sites, making a few copy edits, but generally feeling daunted by the scope of what I didn’t know.  Finally, I fastened on a familiar name, the folk singer Faith Nolan.

My task was to strengthen the citations and enhance the coverage of Faith’s activist contributions.   It was tough going; her work in the 90s was just not that well documented because, well, no social media.  In a world where my cats have Instagram hashtags**, it’s hard to remember a time when “pics or it didn’t happen” means that much was lost, or consigned to oral tradition, which is difficult to document.  I found a few stronger sources to fill out the citations, and I caught one new fact,  about a band that Faith had performed with in her early days, but I still don’t feel done.  

So, Faith, if you’re out there and you’ve got any leads, get in touch.  Together we can tell your story — your way.***

*an excellent example of this tension between  the mundane and the momentous is a discussion I found on the MMIW talk page.  Determining whether the number of women is 500 or 4000 is of vital importance, but it’s hard to stay with the minutiae of the back and forth discussion as it unfolds over multiple exchanges.

** this is a serious post, so no, no matter how hard you beg, I am not going to link to their pictures, but it’s pretty easy to find me on IG…

*** I even wrote you a thank you note.

From Away, my Frosh story

A while ago, Tyson published Froshme on 4C , ending his post with an invitation to others to share their frosh empathy stories. I hesitated at first because I felt that my first year experience was so distant from that of the ifp students. Yet as I wrote it out, I noticed some similarities, and found some empathy.

Of course, one of the defining characteristics of ifp students is that they are not from here, that they are experiencing the quaint rituals of frosh week as strangers to this culture. On the face of it, this would seem quite different from my situation, as I had grown up in Toronto and was very familiar with the university. However, the difference is not as great as it would seem, as I took two deliberate steps that alienated me from mainstream U of T experience: I spent my last year of high school at ASE alternative school, and I then took a one-year break, most of which I spent in the UK.

England had been transformative for me: I had felt my first stirrings of socialism walking past the hedge-fortified mansions of Chislehurst,

and I had become viscerally aware of my own vulnerability, physical, emotional, economic, on the streets of skinhead-era Notting Hill.

Back in Canada, the social world of University of Toronto seemed childish to me. The froshweek students, for all their depravity, seemed impossibly naive and sheltered, buffered by their unacknowledged privilege. (Of course, it had not occurred to me that I also enjoyed privilege, simply in the fact that I had been able to leave London, never mind that my parents had scooped me up and taken me off to Greece on the way home to Canada [and yes, I whined about that, too].)

At the same time, I also felt disengaged academically. At ASE, we set our own curriculum, so I did what any pretentious 17 year-old would do, and read everything (including the Bible). Thus, clearly, I knew everything.

I was outraged to find that my compulsory survey English Lit course required us to purchase a reader (Norton Anthology, the one with all the men on the front, but that’s a different rant).

Well, I it is a little dog-eared: I guess I did read at least some of it.

I resented the vocabulary lists and fill-in-the-blanks exercises that formed the bulk of my second year French language course. I felt that I had progressed beyond the need to learn the nuts and bolts of the language — although I was a little surprised to see my more compliant classmates receiving higher marks for their compositions. Now I understand that there is no automatic equivalency between feeling comfortable with a language and actually speaking it well, and I squirm a little at this memory.

So, even though our worlds are quite different, I can relate to the sense of cultural disconnection that many of our students seem to feel. The complex calculus of beer and hazing rituals holds no meaning for them, and they may see no value in enhancing their familiarity with these things.

Similarly, I sometimes sense a similar academic frustration in my students . They have worked so hard to master a certain set of skills,

and suddenly the goal posts have moved:  some skills need to be un- or re learned. The scaffolded exercises that we offer may well feel like a step backwards, a threat to their fledgeling sense of academic sovereignty.

Faced with this situation, I did what I see many ifp students do — I retreated to more familiar territory. In my case, I re-connected with friends from high school (many of whom were still in high school b/c alternative school). Their lives seemed a little more real: they lived in apartments above stores and worked survival jobs to support their pets and their music habits. They read what they wanted and discussed the books freely and with passion. Granted, these improvised reading lists were a little heavy on Genet and Ferlinghetti, but the quest for knowledge felt more authentic than the one I was offered at university.


When I see my ifp students re-embrace the familiar, setting their clock 12 hours ahead, spending their nights talking to friends back home, closing their social ranks within the program, I may have been a little quick to judge. I need to remind myself that I, too, needed to “go back to highschool,” at least for a little while.

When the brain says nope

So I’m studying Arabic, just not very well.  After many hours and countless hundreds of dollars (well clearly, I could count them, but I’m a little in denial here), I’ve got to a level where I can say “Hi, how are you?” — but won’t know what you’re saying when you answer me.  Luckily, my Arabic-speaking friends have progressed much faster with their English than I have with my Arabic, to the point where we can have long and specific conversations in English about how difficult Arabic is.

My first round of lessons was subsidized by my employer (again, best workplace ever!) on the grounds that learning a new language would foster empathy in me as a language teacher.  My initial response was “Been there: done that already;  empathied up, thanks!  Going to cash that cheque anyway though.”

I thought that I was through with empathy. It is true that I have had the experience of being immersed in a different language, suffered the disorientation, the anomie, the social disintegration — so I thought, “Ok, got it — being a linguistic outsider sucks.”  However, I was a little surprised to discover that I’ve reached a new empathy level — it just took almost a year for me to get to it.

So let me talk to you about case endings.  Actually no, I’m not going to really talk about them because either you speak Arabic and I’m going go to sound like a noob or you don’t and you’re not going to know what I’m talking about.  Let’s just say that in Arabic, nouns and adjectives have case endings:  nominative, genitive and accusative, which are indicated by diacritics that may or may not be accompanied by pronunciation changes.

I don’t really have a problem with learning them.  After all, they are fairly simple and I learned Latin as a young person.  I don’t retain much of the language, but the study did open my mind to the realization that for any possible relationship between words, there can be a formal grammar structure to express it (Somehow in my mind there’s a connection between this and Internet porn, but I’m not going to go there.). So absorbing the information that nouns and adjectives can change their sounds in fairly predictable ways — that’s not a stretch.

The thing is, I can’t do them.  When I’m faced with a sentence to write, or even to read, I just can’t.  I’m already managing the alphabet with its fluid characters and random dots, and maybe I do need a pair of glasses.  And then there’s the pronunciation, which is actually not too bad when you eliminate all the sounds I actually cannot say.  And remembering what the words mean.  And the verb conjugations I’ve pretty well nailed down, although they are a little counterintuitive as most of the action happens at the beginning of the word, and there’s also the problem of my feminist brain piping up about the fact that there is no third person feminine form because women literally don’t have agency and I have to say “Shut up for a while!  I’ll take you to a pinkhat march later, ok?”

So when I get to the case endings, I just stop.  I know they exist, but my brain says, “Nope.  I’m done.”

It’s not that I’m not motivated. i really want to do them. I want to be the kind of student that can navigate smoothly through all this. There’s a woman in my class who loves case endings.  She asks frequent questions to confirm their rationale, and suggests hypothetical situations where the endings would be different. To me, she is a kind of language acquisition superhero.  I would really like to be her — I just can’t: my nope-y brain won’t let me.

This makes me think of my ifp students.  A recurring problem with their compositions is incorrect verb tense inflections.  We know that they have studied the tenses, but they frequently miss the tense markers when writing.  Now I understand what might be going on with them: maybe they are already occupied with all the other linguistic and semantic activity — maybe their brains are just saying “Nope.”*

Knowing this doesn’t solve the problem.  We can’t just have a big group hug and forget about the grammar. They will have to learn to throw a few s s and d s onto the ends of words so as not to totally annoy their Biology profs next year.  Similarly, I’m eventually going to have to get beyond this case-ending hurdle somehow.

Still, perhaps this has taught me a little about blaming and about timing. Experiencing the problem myself has given me a sense of the shape of the problem.  I can feel its weight — the overwhelming sense of powerlessness.  But I can also trace the origin of the problem, and perhaps I can follow that thread through to a solution.

So I’m not going to see this  “carelessness” as a moral failure, on my part or my students’. I know that once the sense of paralysis sets in, there’s no negotiating with it.  With all the good will in the world, I am unable to perform that particular task at that particular moment.  It must be the same for them, when they try to add that final layer of proficiency to their writing.

But what about the other piece of the insight? Maybe now that I understand where this problem comes from, I can shift the narrative a little. What if I remove some of the extraneous sources of  stress? I’m going to sit down with my old homework assignments and go over just the case endings.  I won’t have to think about the other language elements so much, so that should free up some space.  Perhaps I can figure out a way to transfer this to my teaching practice.  How can I show the students a way to free up a similar space in their brains?

So, that moment of empathy is helping me to reshape the narrative of how I learn, and how I teach; this gives me pause because I have an interesting relationship with empathy.

I’ve written about it before here and also here and a little bit here.   I recently read Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy and I agree with a lot of what he has to say.  I think we have to be  wary about throwing the word around.

Still, I don’t think we should be dismissing empathy entirely. In this situation, empathy did supply something that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. This feeling of the brain being full — we knew about it intellectually, saw evidence of it, but when I experienced it myself, I learned something. Something about my own powerlessness, but also about the seeds of a solution.

Empathy then, like a little flash of creativity, takes us somewhere our conscious mind on its own will not.  We should value that.  But we cannot expect rely exclusively on empathy.We have to remember that the flash of inspiration takes hours and maybe years of hard work before it becomes a poem or a symphony or a computer game.  In the same way, that epiphany was valuable, but it’s going to take work and inquiry and teachercraft to apply that information to my teaching practice.  By the end of the process, it may look completely different from what it started out as. And by then, I’ll probably be able to manage my Arabic nouns a little better.

*I just happened on this post by Joy Gakonga.  She also writes about experiencing a sense of paralysis when a situation becomes overwhelming — in a slightly different context. She has  some great insights into how empathy fits into a teacher’s toolset, too.

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