Sharing Culture, Sharing Food

As administrators and teachers know, don’t hold a staff meeting or PD day without food. It’s not only a nice gesture to provide, it’s a far more subversive act than simply showing gratitude. Sharing food around a table encourages conversation, democratizes the space, and elevates the spirit. Whatever other ways you’ve chosen to nurture school culture, adding food amplifies the effect, regardless of location. Even in the Dominican Republic last week, I was reminded yet again of the sacred nature of breaking bread in community.

Across the four day conference that was held in Santiago, 200 participants and our team were served lunch everyday. Each class would be summoned to join a line outside where lunch was served.

These are the staples of DR lunch plates: mangú (a mashed plantain), queso frito (fried cheese), yuca (cassava), fresh fruit and the ubiquitous salami. LOVED it all. It was a long time from breakfast and we started teaching at 8am, so lunch was welcomed. And while I enjoyed trying new foods, more importantly, we ate with our participants.

With the unwavering support of our translator, Jesus, we had a chance to learn about folks beyond the classroom. Teachers lead many lives. It’s so rewarding to ask and listen to their stories. Our participants were so open, so forgiving of our attempts at Spanish, so grateful for the opportunity to come and learn despite sometimes travelling two to three hours. Every day. It was moving to imagine their classrooms and challenges.

At the end of the first day, there was a wheelbarrow filled to the brim with mangoes. Each person took one on the way out. We were told it was a symbol of gratitude for coming to the community.

Food connects us, it feeds us, it feeds our souls.

“In her book Eating Together, Alice Julier argues that dining together can radically shift people’s perspectives: It reduces people’s perceptions of inequality, and diners tend to view those of different races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds as more equal than they would in other social scenarios.” (The Importance of Eating Together, The Atlantic)

We had many opportunities to eat and share with others as our team of 12 were mercifully fed by our hosts, including Juan Pablo and his wife Betty Ann.

Even at our accommodations at Centro Bellarmino, a Catholic retreat, we strengthened our team bonds by doing the dishes together. As the nuns who shared the dining hall were on a silent retreat, we could only communicate in smiles and nods.

Our final night in DR was a true Dominican send off where we shared traditional Sancocho in the intimacy of one of our mentors’ homes. Sancocho, the ultimate Dominican comfort food, is a 7 meat stew that feeds thousands I’m sure. Look at the size of this pot!

Our team, our mentors, translators, children, spouses, and others (I’m not even sure of the connection), all came together to celebrate that manifestation of culture and community: eating a meal together. Conversation, and speeches, were punctuated by music and dancing lessons, both salsa and bachatta. Tight space, tight bonds.

I know I am richer for having experienced the hospitality and community building spirit of the Dominicans. The power of sharing food and conversation around a table there is a reminder of its impact here at home and at school.

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Sounds and Sidewalks Signal a Sense of Place

When you first arrive in a new place, you take in all the sights speeding toward you as you try to make sense of your new surroundings. Often you come to a new place via a car, your own or a taxi from the airport. Your first sense of a place relies heavily on sight as you sit in the bubble of an automobile that offers you a narrow lens through the window to this unfamiliar world.

Speed prevents you from catching the best views, or capturing any scenes with your camera. Sure you cover a lot of territory, but you miss pieces and places that are trademarks of a community.

If you want a real sense of place, you need to walk or cycle. It’s exercise but it also exercises your sense of hearing. When I travel, I am desperate to get a lay of the land as soon as I can, by walking to immerse myself in the surroundings. Last week in the Dominican, we scouted out the raucous sounds of parakeets.

We would never have come upon a local hive of live music had some in our company not been walking around the area.

When you walk down a street, you have a chance to act out what these neighbours do, see and hear everyday.  Of course the key to community is conversation, but getting out of your car and into the streets helps to ‘colour in’ your learning and provide a soundtrack to a community’s identity, where even a chicken has a voice😉.

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that guides much of our social studies questioning: how does where I live determine who I am?

Before I began school at Byron Southwood last fall, I took the opportunity to cycle around its streets to get a lay of the land. I pondered: How far do kids walk to get to school? Do they walk? Are they outside playing? Where are the parks? The variety store? Am I hearing conversations happening in the streets? Where’s the local hangout? The same kinds of questions bubble up regardless of where I am.

Whether faraway or nearby, listening to the sounds on the sidewalks shapes your sense of place and likely nudges you closer to an understanding of that community.

Key to Community: Learn Their Names

 

Allow me to introduce the students from my class in the Dominican Republic last week. You’ll see Roseanna, the firecracker, and Chiara, the natural leader, but also Jose Rafael whose quiet disposition let others shine. My teaching partner and I faced the challenge of building community ASAP since we had only 4 days to accomplish a great deal. Having some experience with adult professional learning models, I wondered whether to anticipate successes or challenges in trying some strategies in another language, another country.

Here’s what I learned again about building classroom community. I believe:

  1. Learning their names is the first step toward valuing identity.
  2. Who we are as a community is a mosaic of many ‘who I ams.’ We best start there.
  3. You can’t really learn until you love, trust, respect and believe in who you’re learning with and from.
  4. Teachers model that they are lead learners when they adopt an open to learning stance. Every move you make is a response to what you just heard, saw or sensed.

Our entire Canadiam educator team began our conference by introducing ourselves and sharing who we were to the crowd …in Spanish!  I can’t help but wonder if this was key to capturing their attention but also respect. When you choose to make yourself vulnerable and push yourself outside your comfort zone, your reach is extended, your impact enhanced.

Our very first day focussed on Tribes learning where we infused energizers and community circle prompts that helped us learn each others’ names.  When we think about building a classroom community, it’s critical to consider the individual identities present. And it starts with name. I wanted to learn and remember each of them so I took a photo with their name tag.  I even shared the story of my name and they too had opportunity to share with others. Listening to them rhyme off 5 names in Spanish is music to my ears! It just sounds more beautiful in Spanish.

Our translator, Jesus (and yes he was my saviour), managed to take our words and gestures together to send a message and ask questions to capitalize on the time together.  He too was learning and I asked if he would share his reflections on the week.

 

We explored energy as our topic through Google Translated 2 page layouts, we tracked their energy usage, we introduced them to a variety of stories of children making a difference in the world through innovative designs. And we created infographics to demonstrate our learning. More importantly, Beth and I learned about the challenges they face in their classrooms as they desperately asked for us to visit. That would be the best next step for us to truly support their practice.  Imagine.

By our fourth day, I can claim with some confidence that we had built something unique. Something valuable. Hopefully an impact on their own instructional practice.   Before we said goodbye, I shared that I thought we had created a memory here of ways to engage, know and instruct students but also to collaborate and enjoy others’ company. I assured them that someday in my classroom and theirs, we would stop and think back to how they were feeling right now and it would inspire them to re-create the same sense of community. I hope that will come true.

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‘Making’ Conversation

Big surprise to no one, I’m not good at small talk. I actually have a slight tremor of dread in anticipation of nail, hair, car appointments or just shopping. Anywhere waiting is guaranteed, I grapple with the expectation of donning a game face to save this predicament we’re all unfortunately caught in. Where did the phrase ‘making’ conversation come from anyhow? I’m too deliberate to make it up. I ponder poking my eye out when my husband invites me to work parties.

But I’m learning.

My admin partner masterfully spins tales that entertain complete strangers, not only staff, with the ultimate goal of putting them at ease. Keeping their mood up. I get the impression he is comfortable in any room. My only saving grace is I’m genuinely curious. I just want people to get to the good stuff right away.

Fuelled by my commitment to learning, seeking and then writing about it, I’m starting to notice and leverage my interactions.

Cue today’s pedicure. (Which I rarely attend as I’m not that interested in the cognitive demands of conversation with someone who’s touching my feet.)

You know it’s coming…she’s going to ask you about the long weekend, your summer plans, and you’ll engage in the awkward first date chit chat. I even brought a book to salve that time in between. But today turned out differently owing to a comment about autocorrect when texting that I almost missed. Once I learned she was originally from South Africa, I just kept pulling the thread that unravelled her story. Escaping one man only to fall in love with another, her future husband. From Capetown to Dubai, Winnipeg to Trenton. And now settled just north of London, Ontario. We talked water in Capetown. We shared hopes for our First Nations in Canada. We laughed at the weather extremes she has endured. I practically asked for her number!

It is so satisfying to be reminded once again about the magnet Canada is for countless immigrants and the gifts they bring that enrich our community. This woman could make home anywhere, but she chose here. And I might have missed an awesome story if I wasn’t looking to learn.

Rambling Rider

I committed to seeking out, learning about and writing down experiences this summer that would give me some insights into community. What defines a community? How many do we belong to and why?  What brings vibrancy and connection to a community?  Even on the last PD day at my school, I tried to reveal how our individual identities determine and contribute to our collective (school) culture.  So my second day on the summer job, Canada Day, I anticipated would be an obvious no-brainer attempt at discovering pockets of community I may have missed if I’d stayed home.  Sometimes, you learn more about you, not what you thought you were seeking.

Day Two:

It was only 45 degrees, so naturally I saddled up on my Cannondale, stubborn to survive, and headed to the Thames Valley Parkway trails looking for local events.  On my way to Harris Park, I encountered a few wee ones at the splash pad, but virtually NO ONE on the trails.  Coming upon that strictly sizzling summer combination of foodie trucks, beer tents, radio station SUVs, stage mic feedback, and a hearing clinic booth (I cannot lie), there appeared to be more people working than city-dwellers enjoying.  Snaking my way toward Springbank, I noted again, no one on the trails. I know it’s hot, but where is everyone? Will they emerge later?

I heard it before I saw it.  Saxophones. Under the shade of Springbank Gardens, the Joe Edmonds Quintet entertained a gathering: those cliques of listeners on lawn chairs, folding chairs and bicycles who only shifted to capitalize on the shade.  Hottest Sunday afternoon yet as they played the old jazz standards, including:

 

A couple danced, a 90 year old birthday boy joined in playing.  Following a few numbers, I continued on my bike, but kept those tunes on my humming playlist while riding.

Which is probably why finally, after the best of intentions for too long, I decided to stop at the acoustic piano resting under the sunshade on Hyde Park Road.  I might play at Forest City Community Church with the band, but I don’t invite playing alone often.  I like to be part of a group that wills a song to life.  I’ll even accompany a vocalist because I’m convinced of my supporting role.  Not everyday you can combine at least 2 of my passions: cycling and playing the piano…for absolutely no audience. Not a soul that I could see.  I gingerly removed what looked like a BBQ cover to discover it was a Heintzmann…just like my childhood piano.

heintzmann

I gasped trying to stop the flow of memories raining down on me.  I actually doublechecked to see if the same select ivory keys were chipped, or broken off.  Growing up, our piano ‘room’  was so small that I am convinced the house was built around the piano! I’d drag the hi-fi close, within earshot, just to teach myself, to play by ear, any albums we had.  No luxury of ear buds or headphones, my neighbourhood witnessed all my mistakes via the screen window.

These days, however, I’m typically told what to learn and play.  Today I sit, albeit sweating, considering what on earth to play.  The first few honky-tonk keys settled my choice…some old standards, just like the quintet I’d heard earlier on my trek: Georgia on my Mind.  And I drift back to Dream a Little Dream of Me.  So here goes…mistakes and all.

 

As I suspected, just like travelling, some of the best days are when you take a first/next step and learn something about yourself. And maybe I did just because the community inspired me.  You can’t always anticipate or plan how you interact with your surroundings.  Just glad I did.

My Canada Day 🇨🇦 was yesterday

I awakened on my first day of summer holidays to picture perfect weather. Grabbing my coffee and my journal, I headed out to the swing to consider the possibilities that could lie ahead this summer. I anticipated writing a ‘to do’ list but quickly realized that doing wasn’t going to capture my intentions. The more I wrote, the more I realized that I think I want to explore some ideas around community this summer. Somewhere in there is an opportunity to learn more about people’s stories and how they contribute to our sense of belonging in a community.

Day One

Yesterday was my Canada Day as I ventured off to the beach at Lake Huron to beat the heat. What better way to usher in the summer holidays than to enjoy sand and surf? Apparently many others had the exact same idea! But here’s who shared my longing to get close to water and appreciate the freshwater paradise we have so much of in Canada. First and second generation immigrants. Port Blake was cliff to shoreline families representing many different cultures: hijabs and leggings, West African prints on dresses and bags, Sikhs in saris and turbans, Korean teens in tents.

I plopped myself down right in the middle of the action. Babies to elders, families exploded across the shore. Up on the cliff, older folks languished in hammocks strung between trees, tabletop hibachis fed kids in droves, circles of teens traded barbs and soccer balls. Up and down the beach, water winged toddlers carried buckets of water back and forth, women’s hemlines dragged through the water’s edge, and dads took turns populating the water with all manner of colourful inflatables.

There’s a sign where the public space of the beach ends that warns no trespassing. True to form, no one ventured past the sign. Beyond, it was empty, save for a few umbrellas dotting the strip all the way to Grand Bend. Rather barren really. And usually that would be attractive to me. But then I’d miss the energy that comes with being a part of something. Like this community. And while I was really an observer on my own yesterday, I certainly wasn’t alone. I soaked up the sun and the displays of familial connections in a range of languages.

My idea of Canada Day is a public space that accommodates the intimacy and diversity of family celebrations in a larger community that appreciates the spectacular Canadian outdoors. I’m thankful I found that yesterday.

Living that Open-to-Learning Stance

 

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As a relatively new vice principal with teaching responsibilities, I seem to be constantly considering anew how to create the conditions for our staff and students to learn. As we are in the midst of the report card writing period, I consider again how we gauge when a student has learned and the evidence we value when assessing that learning.  But what puzzles me and keeps me wondering is … what about teachers? How are our teachers learning and how do we know? I have a few thoughts around this:

  • If you don’t change (your practice, your mind, your attitude), have you really learned?
  • What is the evidence of learning? Is it a change in thinking, in behaviour, both?
  • Do others have to see or witness the change?
  • Do you need to practice the learning in order to galvanize change? or can it really happen overnight?
  • is learning a tsunami wave, or building blocks?

I like to throw myself into ‘new’, into places that are outside my comfort zone IF I’m passionate about the learning.  Funny that.  Aren’t we just like kids this way? I mean, toss me into a tennis match, and I’m out.  Not interested in learning.  But parachute me into a foreign country or language, and I am a sponge.

I had the awesome yet demanding experience of travelling to Ghana over the Christmas holidays as my daughter is living there while she completes a UN internship. Immediately upon landing, I am the outsider, the minority, whether language, skin colour, clothing, privilege or lost look on my face, I am obviously new.  I’m still processing the weight of the entire experience but if I had to capture my memories in a quick snapshot, it would be one of sensory overload, a sun-beating, dust-bowling, trotro-bumping, speaker-blaring, shoulder-brushing ride.

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The treasure about travelling is that it reawakens your spirit and brings the real you to the surface.  Sometimes this is not pleasant for your travelling companion! But it offers a chance for you to reflect and learn something about yourself: your limits, your openness, your values. When you travel, you live every minute. Every next step is new so you cannot anticipate how you’ll respond. I found I had to rely on my daughter and the help and kindness of others constantly.  I had to exercise a lot of trust rather quickly sometimes.

I couldn’t rely solely on my own knowledge because it wasn’t enough.

My experiences in Ghana helped me, or perhaps reminded me, to become comfortable with the uncomfortable, and so I decided to apply the same approach to some teaching upon my return. I had set up Google classrooms already, but it wasn’t really changing my practice.  It seemed like more of a repository for shared readings and responses. In fact, I think I was avoiding the use of Chromebooks recently because I wasn’t tapping into an interactive experience for students.  But a trip to the grocery store opened my eyes again. During my routine visit, I noticed again how much fresh produce we have access to in the midst of January! I wondered if students realized where all the food comes from that we eat. I didn’t really know how I might gather the data, display our findings or where it might lead. But after seeking out the assistance of our instructional coach (@LKarts) and some colleagues from twitter (thanks @SabrinaTyrer and @tvdsbmatthews ), students are currently pinning the locations of fruits and vegetables from our refrigerators on a Google My Map. Each class has its own layer on the map so we can combine all the data. Already they are asking questions, noticing trends, wondering about purchasing habits.  Frankly, I’m not exactly sure where this might lead us.  I’m trying to follow the lead of the students.

I hope that modelling my learning for our staff benefits the conversations I have with them and makes my input authentic.  I’m also thinking of ways to leverage the learning that could be shared between our teachers so they don’t feel like they are alone.

Adopting an open-to-learning stance forces you to rely on others.

Not being self-sufficient is a big lesson for me. One that I’m still learning.