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Teacherpants

It's all about the narrative

Set piece/wistful leitmotif

strange things you get when you googleimage letimotif, but this one makes sense
(strange things you get when you googleimage letimotif, but this one makes sense)

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.

pink ribbons

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.***

20130320-1-Forno-pizza-3

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.

Voices

voices 2
So I’m looking for a good junk food book to burn off the stress generated by end of term and all the other activities I seem to find myself caught up in, and I end up reaching for Voices  from Chernobyl. ( I know , eh?  Usually it would be totally the other way around.)

I’m reading it with this soundtrack of THIS IS A NOBEL PRIZE WINNING AUTHOR blaring in the background, which makes it a little hard to focus on the actual literary text.  Anyway, there will be a Goodreads review about that sooner or later* — probably fairly soon, as the book is short and surprisingly readable given the subject matter.

But the Chernobyl stories have their own special resonances for me because I was pregnant with Em in 1986.  I was here in Toronto.  My parents were in Greece.  They were phoning me:  be careful; don’t go outside.  We were just waiting to see whether the wind from Eastern Europe would blow upwards and over the North Pole.

Later, I would have chance to meet mothers who had also had children in 1986 — and  weren’t as lucky in their location. But their stories aren’t mine to tell, and anyway I can’t tell them without crying.

Part of the book is about the workers who were sent in to clean up after the explosion. The speakers are quite specific about the heroism of these young men: they knew that there was a strong chance that they would die from the radiation, but they also knew that without their actions, the deathtoll would be orders of magnitude greater.  They went willingly because they knew their country needed them.

I had a student who had worked clean-up in Chernobyl.  I asked whether they were given any protective equipment, and he laughed a little (because he was a funny guy) and said, “There was no point.” I don’t remember laughing.

He was around Overland for quite a while because it took him a really long time to find a job in his field:  Canadian employers are somewhat wary of applicants who know a little too  much about certain topics.  However, last thing I heard he had a career-related job, and I assume he is still healthy.

When I think about this, I feel so fortunate.  In the obvious kind of way, to have had the luck to be able to raise my children in Canada.  But there’s also a more personal  reaction: I’m grateful to Overland for giving me the chance to hear these stories. Sometimes there were so many stories that I felt my head would burst. They were shocking, heart-breaking, but in their own way they were beautiful.  The dignity of the speakers gave human meaning to what had been incomprehensible newspaper headlines. It was an immeasurable privilege to be allowed to bear witness to them.

* and here it is

update:  this came up; it seems relevant somehow — US vs. Soviet heroism perhaps?

A refusal to not mourn

 

refusal2
Dylan Thomas

I’m not going to apologize for crying over Paris.

And yes, I did hear of the attack on Beirut. When I read the story on the 12th,  I remember thinking, “That’s an awfully high casualty figure for a country that’s not technically at war.’  And I wondered whether our refugee family was ok.

And yes, we mourn the loss of life in both places.  But how can one truly grieve death in such numbers when comprehending the loss of a single human life is enough to tear one’s soul apart?  How can a person do that and still get up in the morning, hug one’s children, open one’s heart to strangers, fight to spread light amidst the darkness?

So we do our best, but we grieve imperfectly.

But this is not that.  This is the same gutshot feeling  that swept over me as I read about the destruction of Palmyra.

Paris is our city.

I’m sure that 3 million still-feisty Frenchmen and women just bristled at that, but as I watch the Facebook profiles of my Canadian friends flicker into red, white, and blue, I know it is so.

As much as Mesopotamia or the Yellow River, Paris is a cradle of civilization.

Cradle of civilization — we bandy around the cliché so carelessly, but we forget that a cradle is a sacred space.  A cradle is  where we place what is most precious to us — a newly created life.

In cradles we shelter these beings that are entirely powerless.  Under our care, they become autonomous and eventually outstrip us.

A cradle of civilization is a human location that has created an environment capable of nurturing a new spirit.  At first, this idea is new and vulnerable, but it grows into a spirit that spreads across countries and civilizations, a spirit that survives long after the human bodies have perished.

At so many times in history, Paris has been a nursery for these spirits, spirits of beauty and creativity, but also spirits of freedom and democracy.

These spirits have become part of who we are, even those of us who have never opened a French book or travelled to France.

These spirits are present in the stories I tell and the language I use, but they also determine how I hear a piece of music, how I see colours, how I taste a cookie, how I perceive my body as I move through space.

Paris is part of who I am and Friday’s massacre was an attack on the essence of Paris itself.

A human force deliberately set out to erase these spirits,  just as deliberately as it erased the human lives.

And this is why I am crying for Paris.

  • thanks for the inspiration to T Dilworth
  • After I published this post, this  article popped up on my newsfeed.  I love the way the organized presentation of data helps me understand a little but of what I’m feeling.

 

But seriously, Where Are My Pants?

cropped-pants.jpeg

let go of all that no longer serves you– says the wise yoga teacher

So,  as I explained in the previous post, I’m doing my blog audit.  I’ve got rid of all the nasty harsh visuals and it’s looking nice.  Then I get to the header, the strip of pant ankles.  I don’t hate it — it’s got a nice flow.  It’s distinctive*, but not gimmicky.  But still “let go of all that….”

Let’s backtrack a little.  Teacherpants started as a name rather than an image.  There was a lot going on there — an extended Facebook conversation about pants,  the epithet “smartypants” that may or may not have been slung at me in my youth, and of course the epoch-making   Bossypants , but I didn’t really have a clear image in my mind.  When I was putting the visual parts of the blog together, I googleimaged Teacher pants, and got a sea of extremely unflattering garments, the business casual equivalent of Mom jeans.

Well fair enough, I’m sure we all have a pair of those,  a pair of pants that we can throw on with just about anything, reasonably comfortable, nothing too tight or too trendy, probably black, probably some kind of capris.  They are the sartorial analogue of the go-to-lesson  that supply teachers have ready-photocopied and filed in their schoolbags**, there  waiting for those days when you have to be in a classroom at a minute’s notice.

But still

These teacher pants seemed to confirm a certain preconceived notion of teaching as a kind of default profession, a safe, suburban, uneventful job that smart people did if they couldn’t think of anything else to do.

Well I didn’t see teaching that way, and I certainly didn’t want the blog to contribute to that view.

To me teaching was about performance, showmanship, even.  Teaching was about taking risks and breaking ground.  My heroes were teachers, and in my mind, teachers could be true heroes***.

So …. not those pants, then.

So there was a new Google image search for pants.  I found a shot  from the catwalk of a fashion show, cropped it so that it fit into the header dimensions, thereby also removing the part of the pants that revealed the bodies underneath.  So the pants were presented purely as garments, the most impractical, luxurious examples I could find.  It was ironic, and I hoped a little subversive. ⇒ What you mean when you say Teacherpants, is not the same as what I mean.****

And it has served me well, but I think it’s time to move on. Teacherpants isn’t really about that any more.  Or maybe it still is about taking risks and heroism, but I no longer see that as something I need to prove. I feel that the Teacherpants voice has developed a degree of autonomy: through my writing, I have defined my pants.

header

The header on my  current page came with the WordPress theme  I know it’s a bit of a Robert Frost-y cliche, but it’s a pretty shot and it does capture a little of the spirit of the blog, the introspective journey, the moodiness.  I’ll leave it up for a while.  Probably something more apropos will come along eventually, but I’m not going to force it.

I’ll let go when it no longer serves me.

 

*although perhaps a little too much like this

**well ideally — I don’t know whether I personally was ever that conscientious

*** and also

**** probably if you were really clever, you could do something with Roland Barthes here, but all I remember about him right now is that he was run over by a car because he was reading while crossing the road

Where are my Pants?

 

in which the blogger shamelessly appropriates a trope from a popular movie to help explain why the blog looks different

So there was a point when I actually had a little too much free time.

Coincidentally, this was the time when WordPress’s Blogging 201 online course started. I signed up, thinking that this could be a way to make the blog better, and at the same time give me something to blog about. After each online lesson, I would write a post in which I both commented on the new information and implemented it.

And yeah that didn’t happen. I started a couple, but they are still floating around in the drafts folder.*

It’s partly that the free time evaporated, but I think there was a little bit more going on. I just wasn’t comfortable with that degree of self-examination in a public forum. This might sound strange to some, as self-examination seems to be the whole  theme of Teacherpants, but I guess there is a limit; it’s also important that this self-revelation be on my own terms.

One thing did stick, as you can see.   One part of the course was a blog audit lesson.  I realized that it had been a long time since I had done anything with the visuals, so I decided to do my homework and take a critical look at the physical aspect of Teacherpants.  I actually hadn’t looked at the blog that much, as I spent most of my time on the Edit Post pages. So when I switched to the  public site and looked at it honestly, I was a little perturbed.

It was painful. Not in the sense that it was embarrassing or naive, but literally: it hurt my eyes to read it. The dense text was surrounded by  black borders,  and the background image featured  horizontal black and white slashes  representing the branches of an ice-covered tree.  The harshness of the image and the way the lines clashed with the rows of type did not make it easy to get through the long narrow paragraphs of educational exploration.

My blog didn’t always looks like that. My first background was a green Japanese print that I stole off Google Image. It was soothing and unobtrusive, but it gave the blog its own feel.  The problem was that the image wasn’t particularly personal to me, and I wasn’t even sure where it came from.

waterfall1.jpg

 

 

Then the icestorm of 2013 happened,  bringing with it amazing photographic opportunities.  I ..um … adopted the new background image from a friend’s photograph**.  I found the consistent colour scheme and wintry feel somehow satisfying.  And perhaps it was.daniel snow

But then I kind of forgot about it, and it stayed there, for a year and a half. In fact, it’s probably the only background image that most of my readers have seen.  Maybe it was time to acknowledge that the ice storm was over.

So now, I thought, it was really time for a change.  Once I decided to remove the background image, I thought about changing the theme altogether.  The black borders were kind of oppressive, especially when they surrounded posts of over 600 words.  I wanted people to read my pieces thoroughly, right?  Why was I making it so hard for them?

A lot of the best blogs that I read are quite minimalist, Spartan, even.  I wanted to move in that direction, but I wasn’t quite ready for that degree of simplicity.  For one thing, I like a bit of flash, and for another, I don’t have the typographic skills to make that 0-style thing work.

So I’ve chosen the new theme that you see now.  It’s simple, but it has its own character.  The layout suits the way I’m feeling right now.  For one thing, there’s a nostalgic element.  It looks a lot like an old broadsheet, and, even more, like a student newspaper.  I spent some time working on my college newspaper — not long, but I remember those hours fondly.  For another, the busy-ness on the page somehow mimics  the slightly attention deficit way my mind works — I like the way everything is laid out together, making it possible to flit from story to story.

I’m not 100% sure about this theme.  For one thing, this open layout  makes tracking difficult.  One click to the homepage reveals so many posts.  How can I tell which ones they are actually reading?  I can always put in a “Read More” tag.  This would be good for metrics, but it feels a little coy and mean-spirited.  It seems to say, “Okay, if you want anything more, you have to do this for me.”

Also, I’m missing the menu features from the old theme.  I spent quite a few hours this spring painstakingly dividing my posts up into different categories.  Now the category listings are gone.  What if you want an Overland story and you end up with a conference review?  How will you find your way? Maybe that’s something I can tweak.

Anyway, welcome to the new Teacherpants.  May you will find it more accessible.  On the other hand, perhaps you really liked the icy shards that seemed to stab into your eyes as you tried to read.  Either way, please let me know in the comments.

* Interestingly, this great post by Anna appeared in my reader just after I finished the first draft of this.  We can learn a lot about ourselves by looking at the posts that didn’t make it.

**Still stolen, but less anonymous

Teacherpants in the News

fresh c

Check out the link below!  I did an interview with local clothing store Fresh Collective.  They do great work supporting local designers and sustainable manufacturing processes.  Plus they  feature clothes that actually fit real people.  And let’s get real here, I’m always happy to get myself in the media.

Watch this space, there’s a new Teacherpants post coming up really soon.

http://on.fb.me/1g1G77z

Biting the hand

never bite   Then there’s the Union.  This is a ticklish one.  I was raised Socialist the way some people are raised Catholic.  In light of this, I’m going to choose my words extremely carefully, and even so, I’ll probably screen my calls for the next little while. So first, I’d like to say, “I know.” I know the union is the reason that we were making $45/ hour when some private schools were offering minimum wage.  I know that it’s good to feel that there’s someone who has your back if you are being treated unfairly.  I know and I’m grateful,  but still… It’s not that the union shelters bad teachers (I’ll leave that argument to my colleagues on the right.)  It’s that it has difficulty encouraging good teachers.  I’ll try to explain why. Union collective agreements enshrine our right not to do more than we are hired to do, and that makes sense.  The problem is that  policies like that tend to create a sense of the lowest common denominator. Let’s take the example of DM, one of the Overland legends.  DM would sing The Red River Valley with his class before afternoon break. https://youtu.be/z1-QLr6aBaw At the end of year picnic, he would travel to the event in his handmade canoe and then give students rides around the island.

DM's canoe looked a bit like this.
DM’s canoe looked a bit like this.

Now, if there were a policy passed demanding that we all provided those services to the students,  it would be absurd.  We of course would be up in arms.  As for the students, if I tried to replicate either of these it would be disastrous: the first would merely constitute cruelty, but the second would definitely expose me to  legal action.  There is no way to make those sessions part of the standard syllabus. Still, I have a feeling that the Canadian folk songs and handmade canoe represent  where Dennis lives as a teacher.*  What I’m saying, I guess, is that a collective agreement standardizes job descriptions while the things that make us who we are as teachers lie outside that standardization.  I suppose it all comes back to the at school/at the school conversation. The most controversial product of the collective agreement was the seniority list.  Teachers originally asked for this, and it does make sense.  Otherwise, long-standing teachers lose their jobs when a class closes.  Nobody wants a flood of fortysomethings released into the job market, especially if they have few transferable skills (unless someone wants a quick active/passive sentence transformation). At the same time, there’s no denying that it is demoralizing for newer teachers (and the hiring policies have  created a situation where people stay new teachers for a very long time).   I  salute those guys, who keep on doing what they do from year to year, never knowing in June where they will end up in September, building up their rapport with the class, only to be moved on if a more senior teacher applies for the job. So for teachers, I guess it comes down on the side of a necessary evil: it’s probably the system that keeps the maximum number of us employed for the longest time. For students, though, the bumping system is definitely unwelcome.  As I have said before, the big centres have powerful institutional memory: friends tell friends about such and such  a class; a teacher’s methods and idiosyncrasies become part of the lore of the immigrant communities.  When the  established teacher doesn’t return in September (or sometimes even vanishes in the middle of the year), students are confused and angry.  And why shouldn’t they be?  Nobody has consulted them.  Often classes get together a petition and bring it to the site manager or program officer, but he or she is unable to take their wishes into account.  This further highlights their sense that student needs are not considered important.  Frustrated and resentful, they are not primed to be receptive to their new instructor, and they often drift away from the class, and perhaps from English lessons altogether. So yes, unions do make things fairer, and they do create a sense of equality, but standardization can negate the individuality that makes a teacher shine.  What’s more, when teachers are reduced to Tetris pieces in staffing model, we lose track of the needs of the students, who are, after all, the most important elements of this endeavour. *There’s probably only one reader who would realize this, but this is a Tina Torlone line; please consider it homage rather than plagiarism.

So why write this

I’m in the middle of a series of posts about changes to community ESL.  In this one, I get a little meta: I’m writing about why I’m writing them.  You can catch up on the series here and here and here.
Memento-Body-Chart

The Overland pieces have been percolating for a while, but it has got to the point where I can’t write anything else before I get these done.  What impels me to write them? I think there are two things going on inside my writer brain.

First, the whole “too much democracy” theme is a bit of a thought experiment.*  How do we balance equality with excellence?  I have been raised to believe that systems should be as equal as possible, that we should not enjoy a benefit of any kind if others go without.  For this reason, these measures of standardization represent an objective that I have been taught to see as desirable.

At the same time, it could be argued that beauty and excellence cannot occur in a totally standardized world. Perhaps these egalitarian measures that seem so benign have  limited the luminescence of the bigger learning centres.

The old Overland was in many ways elitist and nepotistic, but at the same time, it was its exceptionality that generated the energy. Overland was a space to which teachers and students gravitated; we all brought our best skills, and somehow the school offered us a place where we could contribute the finest that we had to offer.  Is it possible to honour that, when other students and instructors  did not have the same opportunities?  I hope so, but I don’t have a conclusive answer.  I’m writing to find that answer, or at least to understand the question more clearly.

But also, I’m writing to preserve.

I’ve been reading Thomas Kuhn (says she casually, as if she had just picked up the Structure of Scientific Revolutions in a light hearted moment)**, and one of the few things that I managed to glean*** from an extremely intense and somewhat adversarial reading experience was the idea that new scientific knowledge didn’t just add to the pre-existing ideas, that truly revolutionary discoveries obliterated the previous concepts.  In other words,  after a major scientific revolution, the old ways of understanding previous theories were completely replaced.  Einstein, for instance, made it impossible for us to really understand Newtonian physics the way it had been understood before .  Thus, the history of science is very difficult to trace as every significant discovery involves the erasure  of earlier thought.

Now I don’t really see education as a science, as I mentioned in a previous post, but I do find that we sometimes mimic scientific culture.  I think there is a strong impulse to rewrite education history in a way that erases all the achievements of previous educators.****  This is something that is very much in the air at the moment. When we hear public statements  about immigration, about settlement, and immigrant education, we become aware that the very vocabulary of the conversation is shifting. **** *I fear that this re-writing of settlement education policy will change the terms of the discourse to such an extent that the grass-roots, Transformative-oriented education event that was Overland will be written out of the script.  Like a character in a time travel movie******, I am trying to hang on to my memories as the event itself disappears from the public consciousness .  The one thing I can do is write it out, and by doing so celebrate an education event that embodied many of the best qualities of community engagement, adult education, and just Canadianness.

The Overland that I am writing about is not the only way for a school to be, or even the only way that Overland could be, but it did represent the work of a talented group of people at the top of their game.  There was something in the atmosphere that encouraged us all to be our best selves and, as I said before, made us all so much more than the sum of our individual parts.  Policies will change; teachers and students will adapt; things may even be better than before.  However, there was much of value in those early years and we will lose it if we heedlessly over-write our local educational history.

===============================================================================

*Hence all the Dufferin Grove stuff.

**If any Kuhnites should ever happen on this post, first, welcome, you have travelled far; second, please don’t yell at me in the comments.  I freely admit that I don’t understand the majority of what he’s talking about; I  am just using him to set up my argument.

*** Thanks, so much, Mark Zuckerberg for choosing this for A Year of Books, except not really.  Here’s an interesting post on that topic.

**** Real props to Chia Suan Chong for not  doing that in her 2012 webinar for The British Council

**** *If you need an example of this, have a look at this video.  Listen to how differently the topics are being framed than they would be today.

http://www.cbc.ca/player/Digital%20Archives/ID/2665707241/

 

****** or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Memento, or Inception, or..

The Parable of Dufferin Grove

dufferin grove

I’ve been writing about standardization in community ESL programs.  I realize that this can be quite an emotional issue for me, so I’ve decided to back off a little.  I think I can get more clarity if I focus on a situation that has many parallels to Overland’s, but one where I have no personal involvement. 

 

If you grew up in west of centre Toronto, you are probably familiar with Dufferin Mall.  If you didn’t, you’re unlikely to have any real reason to go there now.  When I first moved back to Toronto in the early 90s, It was a nondescript shopping centre in the inner suburbs.  There was a certain drab sameness to its retail outlets; also one was more likely to be the victim of a crime when shopping there than at other Toronto malls.

There was a feeling that change was needed, and the mall was re-worked.  Rather than gentrifying it with upmarket stores, the management brought in a few businesses that were more attractive but at relatively low pricepoints; more importantly, they brought in public services, locating literacy and social work programs right in the concourse of the mall. It is considered a an urban planning success.

Across from the mall is Dufferin Grove Park,  This peaceful wooded area had previously provided a venue for the exchange of recreational drugs, but when the mall was revamped, a similar process took place in the park.  The residents banded together to make it a space that could benefit the whole community.  Communal vegetable gardens, an ice rink with a skate exchange, family events, the first Toronto pumpkin parade: involvement made it possible to achieve  change at a very low material cost.

The park escaped official notice for a while, but eventually Toronto City Parks caught up with it.  They began to ask questions about liability (Did the rink supervisors have proper credentials?) and fairness (Why should Dufferin residents enjoy these benefits when people of other high needs neighbourhoods did not?;  Why were the park staff not drawn from the pool of unionized City workers?).  The community argued back, stressing the importance of staffing the facilities with volunteers who had a stake in the community.  There was also the fact that many of the DG projects (communal bread ovens, compostable toilets) would not have succeeded in a different neighbourhood.

Now DG Park is part of the Toronto circuit, a popular space for farmers markets and other city events.  However, there is a sense that something has been lost.  The  Friends of Dufferin Grove website reveals a legacy of bitter disputes; interspersed with these articles are baleful quotes on totalitarianism from the likes of Hannah Arendt.  In a sense, the space no longer belongs to the community, but rather to Toronto as a whole.

But the question remains.** How close does a community have to be to create a meaningful communal experience?  How do we prevent that closeness from becoming insular and elitist?  Beautiful things are achieved when a community works together informally, but at the same time, we cannot discount the rules that enshrine fairness, efficiency and safety.  Is it inevitable that these rules will extinguish the spark of originality that can arise from spontaneous collaboration?

At some point in the 1980s, a catchy slogan started to appear on T-shirts; “Think globally; act locally.”***  The words seemed at once revolutionary and intuitive, and many of us internalized them.  However, we never really stopped to examine the implicit corollary: that there was some kind of continuum between our local actions and global effects, that our small personal good deeds would naturally radiate outwards to embrace a wider community.  What if this does not happen? What happens when our local actions stay just that — local?

*I’m also putting off writing about my next Overland topic:  the role of the Union.  I’m scared that my family will disinherit me after they read that one.

** A similar issue arises regarding fundraising for elementary schools.  However, some family members were on the other side of the fence on that one.

*** Here’s a new and sexy iteration.

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