You teach your children some fashion sense
And they fashion some of their own
- Gordon Downie

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Cookie Fiasco

A bit of background is probably necessary, so here is what you need to know.

First, I am one of four men on a staff of about 30.
Second, I love to cook.
Third, though I love to cook, I have not made many batches of cookies. Until this week....

I'll create this post as a chronological stream of thoughts connected to my recent participation in our staff cookie exchange.

October 27
One of my colleagues sends an e-mail to see how many people are interested in holding a cookie exchange to get a jump start on holiday baking. My initial thought is, "I don't bake cookies and I don't really like cookies". Great idea, but not for me.

October 29
For some reason, I write back to my colleague and let her know that I'm interested in the exchange. My kids love cookies. One time, I even baked peanut butter cookies from a recipe. I've made lots of those Pillsbury cookies. I've even made the "Cookie Dough" cookies. I'm committed to the cookie exchange. Heck, I'm not the only guy in the exchange, either!

Mid November
The date for our cookie exchange is set.There are eleven people involved, which means I need to make 11 dozen cookies. I am excited. I tell my wife. She nods and says, "That's nice honey."
How hard can this be?

Early December
Much to my surprise, the staff room conversation indicates that people have begun baking their cookies. When asked if have started baking yet, I respond with a good-natured laugh. Once again, I can't help but think "How hard can this be?" After all, I've made cookies before.

December 4
It is Saturday and we have a busy day of hockey. I briefly think of the cookie exchange. Maybe I should find that recipe I made once upon a time. Was it on a peanut butter jar or in a magazine? No sweat - I don't think the exchange is for at least a week. Instead of buying cookie ingredients, I head to M & M to buy wings for the hockey coach's "meeting" we are hosting this evening. The cookies can wait - I've got lots of time during the evenings next week.

December 6
It's Monday. The cookie exchange is Wednesday. One of my colleagues asks if I have got my cookies ready yet. I laugh it off and so does she - "Ha ha, Ted, you are such a guy!" Before I leave school today, it actually dawns on me that I don't have much time left. Better find a recipe so I can buy ingredients. Thank goodness for Google! I find a super easy recipe that requires only three ingredients. On our way home from Cubs, I take the boys Superstore. As we walk through the aisles, my eight year old peers over his glasses and says, "Dad, we haven't been in the grocery store with you for a long time." He's right and it takes me forever to find all of the ingredients, so we don't get home until nearly 8:30. I still have to write my sub plans for tomorrow and plan a hockey practice before I get to bed. Oh well - the exchange is Wednesday and I still have another night to bake the cookies. I've got the ingredients, I've got the recipe. How hard can this be? My boys love cookies and will help me out tomorrow night, since my wife is working a night shift and won't be around to supervise.

December 7
It's Tuesday. The day before the exchange...
5:30 a.m. - Wake up. We have an early morning hockey practice today.
8:15 a.m. - Get to school, finish my sub plans, get things ready for the day.
9:15 a.m. - Run home, shower, change for my meeting, head to Central Office for the day.
3:30 p.m. - Stop by school on my way home from the meeting. Things are looking up - it's really quiet in the school, so I can head home. Maybe I can get a couple of batches of cookies made before I head to hockey tonight. Both kids have practice.
6:30 p.m. - On our way home from hockey practice, I pick up some "Winter Ale". It's the festive season, so I figure should have the beer to match. Besides, I usually have a couple while I'm cooking, so how can baking be any different? Better hustle - the Oilers game starts at 7:30 and I want to make sure I get the first 3 dozen cookies in the oven before the game starts. If I play it, I should be able to get all of the cookies baked over the course of the hockey game.
7:30 - Both boys are home from hockey. With their help, I should be able to get this taken care of. The hockey game has started, so I put the boys to work unwrapping Hershey Kisses. They take care of this quickly and want to help mixing the cookie batter. Finish beer #1.
7:49 - The first two dozen cookies go in the oven and the third dozen go on my wife's fancy stoneware Pampered Chef cookie sheet. Watch out, cookie world, I'm ready! Finish beer #2.
8:05 - The first two batches come out of the oven and I realize I'm not sure what to do next. how long should they cool before I take them off the cookie sheets? I really need to keep going.
8:10 - The first period of the Oilers game ends and I'm still mixing cookie dough. I rush a bit and don't make exact measurements on the next batch. Oh well, they are just cookies. Finish beer #3. In hindsight, maybe that is why I didn't pay as much attention...
8:15 - I realize that 11 dozen cookies is going to take up a lot of counter space. They won't all fit on the fancy cookie cooling rack. I ask for help from my cookie elves, but they are sound asleep thanks to our early mornings and hockey practices.
8:20 - The stoneware sheet comes out of the over and these cookies look different. Hmmmm. I let them cool for a longer time
8:34 - The fourth and fifth dozen cookies go in the oven. To save time, I don't clean the cookie sheets off completely. Between the darn stoneware batch, not letting the cookies coollong enought and "quality control" tastings, I have less than 3 dozen cookies ready to go.
8:50 -The fourth and fifth dozen don't come off the cookie sheets as well as I would like, so I completely clean them off. Once again, I "man follow" the recipe measurements.
9:15 - The "man follow" recipe batch go in the oven. In the interest of time, I decide to leave them in for just 10 minutes. Look in my beer box. Only 2 left. Hmmm.
9:25 - This batch of cookies looks different, somehow. Hmmm. Better let them cool.
9:30 - It's getting late. I still haven't watched any of the Oilers game. My cookie elves are sound asleep. My lovely wife phones about three minutes after I start trying to remove this batch from the oven. It's not going well. I'm not using good language. I haven't watched a minute of the Oiler's game and they are losing 2-0. Why couldn't we have a chicken wing exchange???? At least I know how to make wings!
9:31 - The Oilers tie the game. I'm washing the cookie sheets again. I know it's getting late, but I can't help it and I have to watch the Oiler game. No problem - it's not even close to midnight yet.
9:45 - The next batch of cookies goes in the oven. I'm much more careful with this batch of dough - I don't want to run out of ingredients...
10:00 - This batch comes out of the oven. The Oilers game goes into overtime, so I let the cookies cool a bit longer. I'm about half done my cookie commitment. I know because I've counted these cookies over and over. Maybe I can buy the rest of them at Sobey's???
10:30 - The Oilers game went into the longest shootout I have ever seen and the Oilers still found a way to lose. I decide I need to honor my cookie baking commitment. I would much rather be cooking up a batch of wings. I'm good at that... My wife calls me back. I decide I need to take the high road because that is what making a commitment is all about. Beer is gone.
12:00 - The final batch comes out of the oven. I let them cool and go watch tonight's episode of "Glee" on the PVR.
1:00 - The final cookies come off the sheets and get placed in the fancy cookie bags my wife keeps for special occasions. I flop onto my bed, reeking of peanut butter and winter ale.

How hard could it be?


But at least my family has 11 dozen different cookies, because I'll never eat them.

What was I thinking??????????

Monday, July 26, 2010

Nordegg - Reason #3 to Love Central Alberta

Nordegg is an amazing place. In the words of one of it's most colorful residents, "there's not much happening, but it's all going on in Nordegg." As you wander around the current townsite, it is hard to believe that 3000 people once called this place home. There is a real sense of community in Nordegg. It has about 100 year round residents between those who work in the service industry, live in the north townsite or have other reasons for staying. In no particular order, here are the things that make Nordegg such a worthwhile place to spend a few hours or a few days.
  • It is possible to climb several different peaks to get a birds-eye view of Nordegg. Coliseum Mountain, Shunda (Baldy) Mountain and Eagle Ridge are all quite easy to climb and there are few greater feelings than being on top of a mountain!
  • Fishing is what first brought me to Nordegg. Within 45 minutes of driving, walking or hiking, you can fish for most of the major trout species (Rainbow, Cutthroat, Brook, Brown, and Lake Trout.) If you have the financial means, you can fly to a pristine alpine lake to fish for Golden Trout. My children have caught most of their fish in this area. It can be busy, but can feel wild and abandoned compared to the crowds you find in the Livingstone, Oldman and Crowsnest drainages.
  • You can golf all day for $15 and it's even less for kids. The self-proclaimed Historic Nordegg Golf Course is, well, rustic, but it is perfect for a hacker like me.
  • There are tons of trails for mountain biking. One of the most interesting routes follows the abandoned rail bed from the quarry entrance to the Beaverdam Campsite. I rode this route with my kids this summer and it was one of my best afternoons ever.
  • There are tons of options for accommodations. There is a hotel in town, at least 10 campsites within a half hour drive, David Thompson Resort, Shunda Creek Hostel, Aurum Lodge, Goldeye Centre and COE (Center for Outdoor Education) are all great possibilities.
  • You can visit a National Historic Site and ghost town - Brazeau Collieries
  • The Beer Cabin
  • The name of one seasonal business (my kids' favorite) says it all - Nordegg Rocks!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Places I Love to Fish

Last week, I had the good fortune to spend five consecutive days wading, wandering and wondering. Fly fishing is a profound passion for me. As I have written before, "I can't help myself. I love to fish. If I could, I would spend all day, every day fishing." When I am on a river, hours and hours go by where all I think about is catching a fish. Where are they? What are they feeding on? When will they be feeding? Have I got the right fly? Am I presenting it the right way? Hours can go by where I think of nothing but the last fish I caught and they next fish I would like to catch.

However, this post is not about the act of fishing, it is about the places I love to fish. It is a reflection on very special places. Places I love. I have fished throughout Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. I have wet a line in Idaho, Montana, Washington and Wyoming. . In many of these places, I feel very spiritual. Often, I am awestruck and wide-eyed. I am always deeply respectful and thankful for the opportunity to spend my time in these places. No matter where I fish, the places I love have several things in common.

The first common denominator is the fish. The fish are why I drive, hike, scramble, swim, bum slide, or fly to a body of water. Usually, the places I love to fish are home to trout. Trout and fly fishing go hand in hand. I have caught pike, grayling, whitefish and even suckers on my fly rod. However, it is trout that I love more than anything else. Brookies, browns, cutties, goldens, lakers, rainbows. Each of the these species of trout can be caught on a fly rod and I have wonderful memories that involve each of these fish. They the "raison d'etre" of fishing. A common fisherman's cliche is "It's called fishing, not catching." This is often the mantra of an unsuccessful fisherman, but it does allow me to focus on the act of going fishing.

The second thing these places have in common is geography. Most of these places are surrounded by hills, foothills and mountains. These places are enclosed by forest, usually a mixture of aspen, poplar, spruce, pine, larch, cottonwood and willow. The banks of these creeks, lakes, rivers and streams are strewn with boulders, gravel, pebbles, rocks, sand and silt. The water is cold and usually clear. Every year, these places change. Snowfall, runoff, fire, flooding and storms can all dramatically change them. Things are rarely a carbon copy and every chance I get to visit them brings something new and interesting.

The final attraction is solitude. I don't like to fish alone, but I do like to have my own stretch of river. I don't mind sharing a fishing hole with wildlife. Birds like dippers, loons, mergansers, grebes, geese, pelicans, herons, ducks, plovers, kildeer and sandpipers are common companions. I come across frogs, toads and snakes on a regular basis. Often, I share a large pool with a muskrat, otter or beaver. It is not unusual to spot larger mammals like deer, elk, moose, goats or sheep. I have not come face to face with large carnivores like cougars and bears, but I know that I share these places with them. It is the cougars and bears that make me prefer fishing with a partner.

Most of the water I like to fish is not easy to get to. True, some places are clearly visible from the busiest highways. Some places are within major urban centres. Some places are littered with evidence of mining, exploration and human habitation. In general, though, it takes knowledge, effort and time to get to the places I like to fish. You need to drive gravel roads, hike paths, bushwhack, climb, slide, and follow unmarked intersections to find these places.

These are special places that I share with my family, friends and pets. Many of my very best memories are the result of fishing trips with my kids, my dad and my best friends. I love extolling their virtues. Sorry, but I cannot release names. I will not publicly share directions and locations. I have been shown many special spots and have shared many of my special spots, but I simply can't publish any more information. I won't tell you how to get there, but I'd be more than happy to take you there!

Centrality and Equidistance: Reason #2 To Love Central Alberta

Week 2 - Centrality

Living in this part of our province means that you have to travel. Fortunately, you never have to travel too far (unless you are going way north to places like Grande Prairie, Peace River or Fort McMurray). From my home, it takes exactly the same amount of time to travel to the airport in Calgary or Edmonton. In two hours, I can be in Nordegg or Kananaskis Country. A three hour (give or take 30 minutes) drive gets me to Lake Louise, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Lloydminster or the Crowsnest Pass. It takes approximately the same amount of time to travel to Jasper or Waterton. Six hours in the vehicle gets me to Cranbrook, Saskatoon, Great Falls or Revelstoke.

Even better, it takes the same amount of time to return home. As much as I love traveling, nothing feels better than seeing the signs that tell me Red Deer is close.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Red Deer River: Reason #1 To Love Central Alberta

I had great aspirations to blog each week about the great things central Alberta. It didn't happen, so I'm renaming the first two blogs.

Reason #1 - The Red Deer River Valley

The Red Deer River valley is one amazing place. From whitewater rafting west of Sundre to Dickson Dam to Red Deer's Waskasoo Park system to Canyon Ski Area to Dry Island Buffalo Jump to the Badlands, the Red Deer River offers an incredibly diverse range of opportunties.

As as a resident of Red Deer, I get a chance to see the river up close. It is a place where my dog can run off-leash and swim. The city has an extensive network of multi-use paths for people to cycle, skate, ski, walk and run. The river valley is home to River Bend Golf Course and the Red Deer Golf and Country Club. Cultural attractions like Fort Normandeau and Cronquist House are places to learn why people settled in the area.

Let's treasure this resource. Take advantage of it, but don't abuse it. Two summers ago, we took a day trip in our canoe and had lunch on the island across from Bower Ponds. I was profoundly disappointed that we had to watch where our children were walking because the island was strewn with broken glass. On hot days, legions of people float the river in a wide variety of vessels. Most have a fully-stocked cooler on board. Few have paddles or PFDs. It's a terrible accident waiting to happen.

Thankfully, groups like the Red Deer River Watershed Alliance work hard to protect, enhance and promote this amazing resource. The river gives us a place to play and gather. It provides us with drinking water and electricity. Take care of the river, OK? It's not much to ask when you consider the positive impact this river makes on our lives.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Teacher's Summer: Tuna Salad

Yup. To me, Tuna Salad says "summer." It is a recipe I learned from my mother, one that I never make the same way twice. My wife lets me make it because her tuna salad never quite matches up. It is a dish that tastes best on a hot day. As a boy, we ate it several times a summer and always made it in the same green Tupperware bowl. Yesterday, on the last day of school, I made my first tuna salad of the summer. It wasn't my best (a bit light on the mayo, I forgot to boil eggs to put on top), but it hit the spot nonetheless.

Since we live in Alberta, summer is a time I treasure. It's a time when we can comfortably spend several days in a row outdoors. I try to wear shorts every day and wear socks only when necessary. Summer is a time when I get to read for fun. We get to head to the lake, make sand castles, and spend the entire day snacking, playing, sitting and swimming. Summer means blue skies, bright yellow canola fields, and rivers than run cold and gin-clear. Summer means hatches of insects and hatches of insects mean rising trout. For me, no summer would be complete without a trip to the Rocky Mountains. I grew up camping, hiking and fishing in Alberta's foothills and mountain parks. At this point in my life, summer means that I get to spend huge blocks of time with my family doing all of the things that make summer so special.

I won't deny it - summer holidays are one of the greatest things about being a teacher. Summer helps balance the hours and hours and hours of work we put in on evenings, weekends, early mornings, coaching, marking, writing report cards, finding newer and better ways to our job. This year, two incredibly experienced and gifted teachers retired from our staff. There were many tears, despite the fact that they both were embarking upon a permanent summer holiday. And the reason why was summed up best by one of the ladies who was retiring. She said that teaching takes you over. You see the world through teacher's eyes. Whether you realize it or not, you wind up thinking about teaching no matter where you are or what you are doing. Teaching gets into your heart. How true, Deb, how true!

One of my favorite books about teaching and learning is Roland Barth's Learning by Heart. Barth suggests that roots of true school reform lie in the ability of teachers and administrators to become lifelong learners. We need to share our knowledge and expertise by opening our classroom doors. All teachers can and should lead. We need to ignore standardized testing and focus on reform from within our schools. And at the heart of that reform should be making things better for students. I honestly believe that student's don't remember WHAT you teach so much as HOW you made them feel in your classroom. Positive relationships are at the heart of good schools, good families and good communities.

So, this summer, I plan to rest. I plan to spend time with my family. I hope to read, relax and learn. I'm planning to catch many fish and take my children fishing. I will probably sleep outdoors as much as possible. I am going to visit with friends and spend lots of hours around a campfire. I will ride my bike every chance I get, take our dog for long walks, and eat lots of grilled meat (and tuna salad.) Throughout the summer, though, I will be collecting stories and ideas to use in my classroom next year. I will gather new ideas and learn more about technology I can use in my classroom like Prezi, Glogster, Animoto and Delicious. I can't help myself because teaching a deep part of who I am and what I do.

It is day one of holidays and I'm off to a good start. We slept in, we had a big breakfast and it's almost time to take the pooch for a nice long walk and swim before we head to our annual Canada Day party. Life is good!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

My Most Important Job

This week, I had a meeting with a colleague I admire greatly. I am giving up a sessional instructor position at our local college, a job I have really enjoyed for the past three years. Teaching education students in their final year of university has been extremely rewarding. It has been a wonderful way for my to clarify exactly what I think is important in teaching and learning. Unfortunately, it eats up a great deal of time and leaves me with less energy to devote to my other jobs. I was wearing too many hats and, as my colleague observed at the end of our meeting, "wearing too many hats can make you bald."

I have held a number of paying jobs in my life. Painter, bus boy, toy assembler, hockey school instructor, lawn maintenance technician, substitute teacher, teacher, team leader, vice principal, interim principal. Each of these jobs has been interesting, rewarding and fun in its own way. I honestly don't think of what I do right now as a job. There is a significant distinction between going to work and what I do, which is "going to school." I don't love everything about my job - in fact, writing this post is helping me put off writing report cards, a task that I really do not enjoy. I really believe that what I do is important. My job is meaningful and it helps make a difference. I'm profoundly proud of what I do for a living, but it is not my most important job.

Today is Father's Day, which is the inspiration for my post because being a dad is truly the most important job I have. I have learned this from a number of great role models, like my own father. Last night, mom and dad came to visit us. After supper, my boys, my dad and I went for a bike ride through the river valley in our community. It was fantastic to get three generations out on our mountain bikes and try to keep up with dad, who is easily the strongest cyclist of the group. Even though he is in his sixties, my dad continues to ride, race, teach and promote cycling of all kinds. He works in a bike shop and will be an ambassador for the Trans Rockies mountain bike race this summer. I have learned the importance of passion and dedication from my father. Many of my best memories of childhood involve him.

We used to travel to hockey games, practices and tournaments across Canada and the United States. When I graduated from university, we made a point of doing a major hike or trip each summer. Since I have had my own children, we try to get together for a canoe trip, bike ride or fishing trip on Father's Day. My absolute best memories of dad are the hours and hours we used to spend fishing. We had an old square stern Sportspal canoe. Dad would row and I would sit near the stern as we trolled around, fishing for trout, walleye, perch or pike. We faced one another for hours at a time and I would pepper him with questions when the fishing was slow. We would usually get out three times a day - early morning, early afternoon and later in the evening. I learned so much from my father on these fishing trips and they really are the things I treasure the most.

I have learned from other great role models. My grandfathers were two completely different men. From one, I learned the importance of duty, history and discipline. He was a hard man with a soft spot for animals and children, particularly his grandchildren. My maternal grandfather was a calm, meticulous and caring man. He taught me to shoot pool, play cribbage, mow a lawn, and persevere in the face of pain and suffering. My father-in-law, who passed away last fall, taught me about the sheer importance of having fun in spite of everything that happens to you. He lived his life to the fullest and the enormous crowd at his funeral said everything about the impact a simple man can have on people.

This morning, I woke up very early and had the house to myself. I enjoyed the quiet and the opportunity to get caught up on some things I had recorded on the PVR. My day got off to a perfect start, though, when my eight year old came downstairs, settled on my lap, gave me a big hug and said those words that mean so much to me and serve to remind me of my most important job...

"Happy Father's Day, Dad".

Friday, June 11, 2010

Come Together!

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague while I flipped burgers on a gigantic BBQ grill. She was telling me about her daughter who lost a friend recently, so a group of friends had gathered at a local watering hole in to remember him. My colleague said something that resonated and inspired this post. She noted that, for her daughter, the simple act of coming together to remember a friend was most important - more important than attending funeral or memorial service.

When I was in my early twenties, I lost one of my best friends. He died suddenly in an automobile accident. It took me and my group of twenty-something friends completely by surprise. What I remember most about dealing with his death was coming together with those friends, school chums, and teammates. We attended the prayer service, then we came together at an Earl's restaurant to eat and remember. At the funeral, we sat with our families and acquaintances. Afterward, though, we came together at a local pub, this time to drink and remember. As the night wore on and we moved from pub to home to club, we remained together. It was a hard time, but we worked through our numbness and disbelief together.

Coming together is incredibly important in the work that I do. Recently, I had the good fortune to speak at another school about our school's experiences with improving student writing. More than anything, I was proud to emphasize how everybody "bought in" to what we were doing. The school I work at has an amazing staff. Time and time again, they come together to make incredible things happen. From school improvement projects to June clean up to staff learning days to retirement celebrations to special events, everyone in the building comes together. As a group, our staff understands that it is impossible to accomplish anything on your own. It is so nice to be a part of our "come together" culture.

Recently, we held our family barbeque and movie night. It is my favorite night of the school year (Student-Led Conferences are a close second). As I write this, I can't see clearly through my glasses because they are covered in burger grease. My eyes are very sore from 2 hours of non-stop grilling. I smell like a Big Mac wrapper and the dog won't quit licking my pants. Make no mistake - the Family BBQ is not without drama. People invariably have to stand in line for burgers, kids regularly overindulge in the infamous McDonald's "Orange Beverage", and I spend the first 3 hours of the event in a state of constant worry and thought. could this possibly be my favorite night?

This night brings people together in a very special way. A very diverse group of people appear. Parents, grandparents, siblings, friends and neighbors attend for a free burger or hot dog. Each family brings (or should bring) a dessert or salad. Some are homemade and delicious, some are bought at 7-11 on the way to the school. People from across the street come over to see what is going on. Tonight, a fellow stopped by and wanted to sell a box of CD's and cassette tapes to us for $10. One of my BBQ partners had him talked down to $3 and a free burger, but somehow the deal fell through. There is a colorful character who lives around the corner from the school. He runs a skate sharpening business and has a pet parrot. Tonight, he showed up on his bike and brought the parrot. On his shoulder. To a school yard full of inquisitive children. How's that for a recipe for disaster? The addition of the colorful characters and people who wouldn't arrive at the school unless there was free food makes this night extra special. I just love it! It is a success because our staff comes together with our school council, the families in the school, and the community. We truly work together to make a great event.

Last year, we added a great twist to the family BBQ night. We hire Fresh Air Cinema to hold a "walk-in" outdoor movie event. And this twist adds a"if you build it, they will come" element to our family BBQ. It is amazing to watch people filter in. The screen starts going up as people first arrive with their pot luck item and lawn chairs. Many people choose to sit and watch the set up. This year's film crew was composed of two of my former students. They got to know my oldest son, who is fascinated by engineering and electronics, quite well by the end of the night. To their credit, they put a lid on his simmering pot of questions. Even better, they made a point of telling me what an interesting child he is. Indeed...

From the end of the BBQ to the beginning of the movie, there is nearly two hours of time to fill in. Many families come, set up their chairs and head home until shortly before the show. Many families, however, choose to stay for the entire time. It is amazing to watch how people come together for these events. There is music, dancing, soccer games, frisbee throwing, chasing, tag, hanging out and playing on the playground. During this time, nothing is organized, it just happens. It really is amazing to watch because our staff bring their families. Our families bring their families. Odd characters and members of the community arrive. Tonight, a group of sketchy looking teens came to smoke, but they stayed out of everyone's way and I decided that if these "tough" kids wanted to watch G-Force on a gigantic outdoor movie screen, they were welcome to do so.

It is incredible to see how people "come together" on a night like this - it reminds me of the community picnics, gymkhanas, and rodeos I attended at the local community hall as a boy. It has elements of family reunion, outdoor festival and circus sideshow. At the end of the evening, though, I can only look back and smile. I think of the the work our school staff puts into setting up, ordering food, preparing salad, setting tables, washing dishes, mopping floors. I think of my companions at the barbeque - wiping grease off their glasses and taking mild abuse about the long lineup for a burger. I think of the wide range of families who arrive - some for a free meal, some for a free night out, some because their children don't want to miss a single school event, but most for a genuine chance to be together with our school community. It's magical, and I wish our society did more things like this.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Take Your Kids Outdoors!

My goal here is to issue a plea to parents, teachers, grandparents, caregivers and anyone else who has a say in how children spend their time. Get them outside. Please. The joy of being outside with your children is difficult to describe, but it's possible to summarize in a look or a sound. A month ago, I took my son's Cub group on a hike. I knew where we were going, so everyone had to follow me. This meant that I got to arrive first and take in the looks on the kids faces as they approached the canyon we were going to follow. The look can be summarized as a sudden stop in forward momentum, followed by a significant widening of the eyes and opening of the mouth. The sound? Simple. "That is SO COOOOOOOOOOOOL!"

The canyon you see in the picture above is, possibly, my favorite place on the planet. I've taken hundreds of students there. I camped at the edge of this river on my honeymoon. I have fallen off rocks, scraped my arms, and fished this canyon with my children, my best friends and even my mother-in-law. Every time I go there, I feel connected to our world in a way that is really difficult to explain in words. You have to FEEL it.

Feeling is a powerful thing for me. I grew up hiking with my parents. As I got older, the hikes got longer and more involved. Some of the greatest memories I have are of hiking with my dad and my best friend. Each summer, we took on a different "classic" - West Coast Trail, Chilkoot Trail, Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine, Skoki Valley, the Skyline Trail. It was on the Skyline that I experienced one of the most powerful feelings I know - the feeling of climbing a mountain. It was not a huge peak, but it was a peak and the minute I arrived at the top, I literally felt like I was on top of the world.

This morning, I took my son and his best friends to the top of a mountain. For years, my boy called this place "Radio Tower Mountain" and I know that he has wanted to go up there from the first time he saw it. So, for his birthday, we made the trek west to accomplish this goal. Last night, as we looked up at the mountain, I know that the boys really didn't understand what they were about to do. "We're going up there? Cool." My son has been to the top of other mountains, so he knew what we were in for, but the other boys had no clue.

As we climbed and climbed and climbed, I didn't hear a word of complaint. Every time the views opened up, one of my son's friends would say something like "This is so cool" or "Wow" or "This is beautiful" or "This is amazing". I can't help myself - I just love hearing those reactions and seeing the looks on their faces. It's a look that I've seen when we visit canyons, waterfalls, hoodoos, geysers, tide pools, the ocean, the Badlands, petroglyphs and yes, even Disneyland. These are looks of light, of learning, or sheer joy.

Have you really looked at a child playing a video game? All I see is grim determination, blank stares and frustration when the quest of the next level is thwarted. It's a shocking contrast to the look of a child who has caught a fish, skied their first black diamond run, jumped off a boat in the middle of a lake, climbed a rock face or finished a difficult bike ride.

I know which look I prefer. Even better, I know that I have directly caused those amazing looks on the faces of children.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Decade?

This weekend marks a landmark for me. My little boy, who is not so little any more, is turning ten. 10. TEN???? Where did ten years of my life go? I remember the night before he was born like it was yesterday. Now, he's in grade four, he wants an iPod touch, he has a blog and next week, it's time for us to have "the talk".

When he was born, I was teaching middle school language arts. I lived in an older house across the street from my school. We had an older, sedate, obedient Chesapeake Bay Retriever. I drove a '93 Nissan SUV and a my wife drove a brand new VW (we needed a 4-door vehicle - no stinkin' minivans for us!) "Survivor", "Maclcom in the Middle", "Dora the Explorer" and "Clifford the Big Red Dog" were brand new television programs. Our camera used film. One of my best friends was living with us. I had a second hand HP computer that survived Y2K. My wife and I still went to first run, grown-up movies, including the Academy's Best Picture, "American Beauty." The hottest music included Eminem, The Dixie Chicks and Creed (and I had free copies of their music thanks to Napster.) The year? 2000.

Over the decade, my life has changed for the better in so many ways. Now, I teach grade four, I'm the vice principal and I teach a fourth year univesity class at the local college. We live in a newer house farther from the school. We have a younger, less than obedient Chesapeake Bay Retriever. I drive an '06 Nissan truck and my wife drives a brand new Subaru (which we needed for the mildly disturbed dog. Still no minivan.) We have five different cameras, including the one that uses film. We don't watch much live television these days, but my wife is watching an episode of "Glee" on the PVR as I write this. The computer I am using is an old DELL, but I also have a MacBook from school and do plenty of communicating on my iPhone. My best friend doesn't live with us, but he lives really close. We go to first run movies as a family - the last one we all saw was "Diary of a Wimpy Kid." We get a lot of our music on iTunes and now, I really don't mind paying for that music.

The overall scope of how things have changed became obvious to me when we started planning my son's birthday party. So far, his birthday parties have been reasonably big-scale events. This year, he wanted to go somewhere overnight with a couple of his best friends. We are heading to the edge of the Rockies and staying in a hostel for his 10th birthday. He wants to go fishing, hiking and geocaching. So long, loot bags, DQ birthday cakes, banners and sparkly candles.

What really solidified my son's transition from little boy to little man is the spectre of "the talk." He is in grade four, which means that he will get his first Human Sexuality education in Health. And, since I am the male grade four teacher, I will be teaching him and all of his peers. My son is incredibly inquisitive, so I know that if I don't prep him for the content of my lesson, he will grind it to a standstill with questions. I'm not overly concerned about having this conversation. My wife and I have always been very open with our kids about everything, so this won't be too much of a stretch.

It's just that...well...I have never really thought I would be old enough to have this talk. Or be turning 40. Where on earth did ten years go?

As Rowley says in "Diary of a Wimpy Kid', ZOOOEY MAMA!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Go Big!

Last year, I had the good fortune to attend a national Health and Physical Education conference in Banff. It was one of the best conferences I have ever attended - so good that I had the professional fortitude to drive my family to Sunshine ski area, drop them off, and return to Banff for the conference. I did consider the concept that skiing on a beautiful Saturday in May would be a form of PD, but I took the high road. I'm really glad in did. I attended a session about Spirit Days in schools by Chris Wilson. His message was "Go Big". Set the bar high. Big costume, big investment, BIG FUN!!!I have adopted this philosophy wholeheartedly this year. Going big means letting those around you know that you are "all in". School spirit is hard to define, difficult to quantify. But, I can absolutely guarantee that it exists. It's a feeling, a sense, an energy that makes a school a great place to be. I work in an amazing place. The teachers are skilled, caring, and completely committed to the kids. We have an extremely supportive parent group who will do everything they can to ensure our students have the most positive experience possible. We regularly "go big" when it comes to residencies, guest instructors, and special events.
There is nothing to be lost by going big and everything to gain. It's fun for everyone. It's memorable for all involved. It makes being at school special. And, what else could you ask for?Even better, I've always wanted to be Superman, Batman and Teacherman (plus, I didn't have to iron clothes all week long.)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Lessons in Film

I am up front about my weaknesses. For example, I love fishing. I can't help myself. I particularly love fly fishing. I would go fly fishing every day, all day if I could. Another weakness? My kids and being a dad. I love my kids beyond belief. If there is a song or music video that has anything to do with a dad and his children, I weep openly and without shame. A final weakness is that I love film. I get very unhappy when my students ask if they can watch a "movie". At one point, I summed it up as "Films are movies that are actually worth watching." I'm not trying to be snooty - I'm just saying that there is a big difference between "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Paul Blart: Mall Cop".

Before I taught grade four, I found a way to work all or part of the film "A River Runs Through It' into every class I taught, be it Social Studies, English, Health or my fourth year Language Arts curriculum class. True, the fishing aspect of the story is beautiful to watch. What is most compelling to me, though, is the family dynamic. The story's author, Norman Maclean, tells the story of his father, a Presbyterian minister, and his younger daredevil brother, Paul. The family settled in Missoula, Montana in the early 1900s - as the film states, "it was a world with dew still on it." There are so many ideas and thoughts in this wonderful film about families, education and human nature. I had a watershed moment last summer when I watched this film with my two sons (who are remarkably similar to Norman and Paul in terms of age differential and personality.) We finished watching the film (in tears - imagine that) and had such a meaningful conversation about always being there for your family, no matter what. Even better, we went fishing the next day and my older son caught his first two trout on a dry fly.

Another film I love to use when doing presentations for teachers is "Stand and Deliver'. This film is the true story of Jaime Escalante, a Puerto Rican immigrant who taught mathematics in difficult neighborhoods in Los Angeles. More than anything, I deeply admire the determination of Escalante's character in the film. Real or dramatized, the lesson in the film is to never quit, regardless of the barriers you face. This video is my favorite scene and sums up what Escalante stood for

There are many other "teacher" films I enjoy like "Dead Poet's Society", "To Sir with Love", "The Karate Kid", "Coach Carter" and yes, even "School of Rock". Often, we don't have to watch the entire film in order to select the key ideas and messages. To me, this is the power of YouTube and iTunes. It is amazing to have these resources at your fingertips and I really believe that they enrich your classroom when you use them properly.

I've only scratched the surface of this topic. In the end, my big message is that there are SO many lessons that can be learned from good films. If you are a teacher, do me a favour and don't just show a movie for the sake of showing a movie. Show a film. Have a purpose and communicate that purpose to your students. One of my favourite experiences as a teacher was showing my Grade 8 students "Life is Beautiful". My kids were initially reluctant about watching a subtitled film - every time I used it, I was asked "Why do we have to read and watch a movie?" By the end of the film, though, the power of Roberto Benigni's story pulled all of my kids in to the touching story of a father who makes the ultimate sacrifice.

There are amazing lessons to be found in film. I would love to hear more from you about the films that affect you.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Take Time

Time. There seems to be too much of it, too little of it. Time can be on our side. Time can be ticking. However you look at it, time is a relative concept. I'm writing this post on May long weekend and since we decided to stay in town, I feel like I have an abundance of time. Today is Sunday, but it feels like a Saturday and I'm really enjoying the luxury of time.

In my career, I have to remind myself to "take time". One joy of being a teacher and school administrator is that my job is never boring. Time flies, usually because I'm having fun! It is, however, easy to get wrapped up in what I do in my classroom and forget to take time for the other people in the school - teachers, parents, and even the kids in my class. When I really think about it, it's important to take time to do three things.

The first, probably most important thing I have to remind myself to do is say positive things. I give encouragement, pats on the back, and support all the time in my classroom. What I am talking about, though, is genuine praise. This is the type of praise where you take someone aside, look them in the eyes, and tell them something they have done very well. Last week, one of my students found a teacher's wallet in the parking lot and brought it to me. It was the perfect time to make a big deal about doing the right thing. At times, I have to remind myself to say something positive, write a positive e-mail, make a positive phone call home. When it is genuine, directed and earnest, saying something nice to someone else is incredibly powerful.

When we get wrapped up in our lives, we sometimes forget to listen. Years ago, I heard Dr. Michele Borba speak about the importance of consciously building empathy in children. According to her, teaching children to LISTEN is one of the crucial elements of empathy. When I was a middle school administrator, I took pride in the fact that I would listen to every child, every parent, every staff member who came into my office. It feels good to know that you can be trusted. As a parent and husband, it is equally important to listen carefully. At times, this is a struggle with my 10 year old son who is an endless stream of facts, ideas and information that is incredibly important to him. I have caught myself saying "Not now, Connor" and feel terrible when I do so. Listening, really listening, is so important.

The final element of the "take time" triad? Take time to acknowledge people. When I moved to Red Deer, one of the things I really enjoyed was the fact that people nodded and said hello when they passed one another on the street. A few weeks ago, our family got the opportunity to be greeters at our church. It was so nice to see my children experience the joy of simply saying hello. One of the most important things a teacher can do is meet their class at the door. The simple act of saying hello is remarkably powerful. The first time I heard Todd Whitaker speak, he said that, as a principal, he would never walk by someone in the hallway without acknowledging them. It's simple, but it takes a conscious effort and it takes a bit of time.

I'm not perfect. I don't manage to do all of these things all of the time. It takes a conscious effort and I have to remind myself to do these things. In the end, though, it is time well spent. There is no rewind button in life. You don't get "do-overs". So, I try hard to take time the first time.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Shakespeare for Kindergarten?

I want to follow up on my previous post about the value of the arts. I'm interested in the idea of transformational experiences and watershed events. Epiphanies come rarely, though I can definitely say I enjoyed a degree of transformation in the past few days.

This week, our school worked with Quest Theatre from Calgary. Our end product of the residency was a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Initially, I was skeptical and not looking forward to the disruption that would ensue. When I saw the script, the schedule and the play choice, I was even more skeptical. A Midsummer's Night Dream is probably my least favorite Shakespeare piece - partly because I don't fully understand it and partly because I really love things like Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet. So, I grumbled about the 7:45 Monday morning meeting. I took a stack of marking the first time my class went to work with the guest artist. I was skeptical about my students' ability to successfully perform the difficult opening scene for the production. But slowly, over the week, I was reminded of the power and value of drama.

My experience this week was very similar to my experience as a teacher. At the end of my first year of teaching, I was offered a full-time middle school Drama position. Definitely not my first choice, but in the early 1990s, teaching jobs were scarce. I really wanted to stay at my school, I had taught one drama class in my first year, and I was taking over from a master teacher who really helped me along. Taking that teaching position changed my teaching career in an incredibly positive way. I learned the value of developing strong relationships and found great joy in having my students come to class happy and leave my class happy. Somewhere along the way, though, the value of the arts got shuffled lower on my list of priorities.

The second time I took my class to the work on their scene, I decided I would watch, help and participate. And, with my attention firmly on my kids instead of my e-mail or marking, I was taken by how much fun they were having. I jumped in to a game of "Splat" with my class and remembered exactly how much fun it is to be the drama teacher. On third day of the residency, the transformation was well in motion. Many of my students who struggle with reading were so motivated and excited about the performance, they went home and memorized all of their lines. They were having fun on stage. They were incredibly motivated because, as the bard once noted, "The show's the thing."

I finally got a chance to see the entire school perform yesterday morning. And, in most of the students, I saw a spark and energy. I'm proud to say that my class performed the opening scene and got the show off to a tremendous start. They had a difficult scene, yet they were performing Shakespeare with great joy and commitment. When the kindergarten class pulled off their dance scene (think fairies, Shakespeare and "All the Single Ladies"), I witnessed the power of interpretation. Parents, teachers, and the Quest instructors looked on with genuine pride. And, for the first time, I really understood the play. Remarkable.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Value of the Arts

This week has taken me back to the value of the arts. Sports and outdoor pursuits dominated my childhood. No piano lessons, choral instruction or drama classes for this cowboy. I did, however, attend every hockey school my parents could afford. The result? I played junior hockey, which paid for my education. But somehow, I can't help but think that something was missing from my childhood.

As a child, I certainly had a dramatic side. The first day my kindergarten teacher read us the Three Billy Goats Gruff, I couldn't help but be the troll under the bridge, complete with scary troll voice. In grade four, I had difficulty being quiet. One afternoon, I could not help but sing the jingle from a particularly catchy Kraft Pizza television ad. During my second warning, my teacher told me that if I couldn't stop singing, I would have to sing in front of the entire class. I don't think she expected me to take her up on the offer. I called her bluff and she had to let me lead the class in "The Other Day, I Met a Bear." In grade six, I got the part of Marley's ghost in the school operetta. Unfortunately, the early onset of puberty meant that my singing voice cracked horribly. Eventually, my teacher suggested "Ted, just SAY the words to the song." I may have been the world's first white rapper. Oh - and I fell down the stairs during the dress rehearsal in front of the entire school, including my little sister and her creepy little friends. After elementary school, the arts were not part of my education or my life. Sports, friends, cars and Led Zeppelin took over.

I have always loved music but lack training, knowledge and musical ability of any kind. Some of that changed this year because I got the opportunity to take my younger son to his Music for Young Children classes. Now, I can at least read music. I've played a duet with my son. I'm still tone deaf and have a poor singing voice. Either way, I'm feeling a bit more complete.

On Monday, my children had their year end piano recital. My older son opened the recital by playing the national anthem (beautifully, I might add...) My younger boy played a version of "Do Your Ears Hang Low." The pieces ranged from simple and cute to wonderful, artistic renditions of difficult music. What struck me as I looked around the room was the look of intense pride on parents' faces as they listened to their children. I couldn't help but think back to the looks on the faces of hockey parents. I spend most of the winter watching and coaching minor hockey. Hockey parents definitely have their proud moments, but the looks are so much different to me. I'm not sure if it isthe intensity of the looks or the range of emotions that sets their reactions apart.

No judgments here - just observations. In the end, I'm glad that my kids had the chance to see the "Hockey" look of pride and the "Music" look of pride. And I'm glad that they had balance in their lives.