Loving the Questions and Living the Truth

“Progress lies not in enhancing what is, but in advancing toward what will be.” — Khalil Gibran

It has been a long time since I wrote a blog post here, and a lot has changed in my life. I wasn’t sure I would continue posting, as I was uncertain as to whether my ideas would still be relevant for this space. Nevertheless, writing is helpful for me to process ideas, and I was inspired to post something more personal today.

Last summer I visited a friend in the Netherlands while on holiday. I immediately felt like I belonged there, and returned to Canada desperately homesick for a place I had never lived.  After some careful and thoughtful reflection, I embraced my commitment to my 2018 word: “Yes”, and began making applications to positions in the Netherlands. It took some time, but eventually the right job found me, and I was offered (and accepted) a position at a highly regarded academic university as an educational specialist/trainer. Immediately after finding out I had the job, I sold my home and the majority of my worldly belongings, said goodbye to my family and friends, and in January boarded a flight to begin the next chapter of my life, bringing with me only 6 suitcases and a hugely hopeful heart.

I LOVE living in the Netherlands. I do not question or regret my decision to move here. It is absolutely where I am supposed to be. My new city is beautiful and historic, while simultaneously lively and full of energy and culture. Some days I need to pinch myself just to check if it is actually real. One amazing thing about living in Europe is that everything is very close and travel to other places is relatively easy. Now that the weather is nicer and I am feeling more settled, I have begun to venture out more on my days off.

I am extremely grateful for the ability to use tools such as Facebook and Instagram to connect with friends and family - no matter how far apart or how many different time zones we may be in. I appreciate the ease of communication and feel immense gratitude for tools like Marco Polo that allow me to experience “conversation” with people I care about, even though we are not awake or available to talk at the same time. I have been posting a lot about the places I have visited, both within my own city and in the others I have travelled to, mainly so that the people who care and worry about me can see that I am safe and happy.

Despite my gratitude for having these tools to keep in touch, I have also started to notice that the more I post, the more I feel like a fraud.  I frequently receive comments from people saying things like:

  • I wish I had your life!

  • You are really living it up over there! Awesome!

  • You are having such a great time! It’s not boring there like it is here.

  • Keep posting! I am living vicariously through you!

  • You are so lucky!

While these comments are meant to be positive and supportive (and I have said similar things, myself, to others in their own posts previously), they leave me feeling like I am weaving a tale that is not true. Each photo is simply a snapshot of a carefully framed and curated moment, and a very inaccurate representation of real life. While this is the reality for all of us that use social media to post about the (mainly good) moments in our lives, it has started to bother me more and more over the 4 months I have been here. I want to be honest and share the true story that you don’t see in the posts.

  • I AM fortunate to live here, AND I was fortunate to live in Canada. When I show my Dutch friends photos of my Canadian hometown with its lakes and mountains and valleys and sunsets, they are incredibly jealous of how beautiful a place I came from. Sometimes we become desensitized to what’s around us and think that what we find “normal” (and, as a result no longer truly see) is boring. It’s not. Please start noticing the beauty and uniqueness around you. It is everywhere if you just pay attention.

  • My arriving here did not have a lot to do with luck. It had a lot to do with heartbreak and loss, and wrestling with identity when huge pieces of my life crumbled unexpectedly at the same time. It required a willingness to give up the comfort and security of the “known” in order to follow my heart and intuition, and to “put myself out there” and apply for multiple jobs, knowing that I would need to deal with repeated rejection until the right one appeared. It meant doing lots of really difficult and stressful things, and moving far away from people I love more than anything. Luck played such a small role. What it did have a lot to do with is COURAGE.

  • Moving abroad is rife with headaches. Immigration paperwork sucks. So does trying to figure out how to get established in another country, even for seemingly simple things like cell phone plans, bank cards and setting up household utilities. It sometimes feels overwhelming and like a canal full of purple crocodiles (a Dutch phenomenon that my colleagues educated me about).

  • I still have to wash dishes, vacuum, clean my toilet, shop for groceries, pay bills, and do all the other mundane tasks that go along with everyday life in any country. I also still work 40+ hours per week. I just don’t post photos of any of that stuff (and I don’t think anyone wants me to).

  • I feel lonely. A lot.

  • Living and working in a new country requires development of an up close and personal relationship with constant failure. I fail at understanding and communicating in Dutch. I fail at understanding systems, programs and procedures new to me at work. I fail at understanding and complying with cultural norms and nuances. I am a beginner learner again. I feel like I suck at everything… ALL THE TIME. I do not feel fully competent at anything… yet. When I tried to express this to colleagues, I felt like even more of a failure and ended up with a massive vulnerability hangover. (And I will likely have another one after posting this publicly).

A lot of people ask me why I decided to move here. I don’t really have an answer. All I know is that this is where I am supposed to be. I am as curious for the reason to show itself as anyone else. What I do know is that it will have something to do with people and purpose and connection. Already I am humbled by the kindness and helpfulness of people, the incredible opportunity to meet people from all over the world, and the gift of being trusted with their stories. I’m still struggling to figure out the bigger purpose piece, but I am sure it will come. When I get frustrated and impatient, I think about this quote from Rainer Maria Rilke: “Love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”  

That, and I listen to this song on repeat. Every. Single. Word.

The Puzzle of Perspective


In the spring, my thoughtful friend, amazing educator/podcaster Sandra Chow, surprised me by sending me a special puzzle called “Blue” that she had a feeling I would like. I was so excited! Not only is blue my favourite colour, but when I started putting the puzzle together, I realized that a lot of the pieces that made up the puzzle reminded me of different events, trips, symbols, memories, etc. that I connected with as part of my own personal story - the many distinct pieces that make me who I am. Working on this puzzle got me thinking about how each of us is a completely unique compilation of special puzzle pieces that fit together to make us who we are, and in turn, colour the lenses through which we see ourselves and see the world.

Every conversation we’ve participated in, book we’ve read, show/movie we’ve watched, song we’ve listened to, place that we’ve visited, teacher we’ve learned from, experience we’ve had, goal that we accomplished (or didn’t), thing that we’ve decided we like (or don’t), and so many more factors, help contribute to the story we make up in our head about our identity and the core beliefs that guide us in the ways we “show up” in life, and in our interactions with others. No two people could possibly have the exact same combination of puzzle pieces that make them who they are. As a result, no two people could possibly see the world in exactly the same way. There will always be differences, even if slight, that affect our “worldview” or perspective.

As I have been working with students to continue our plastic pollution awareness collaboration project with friends in Bangladesh (and more countries confirmed for the new year!), I have been wanting them to understand this idea of “puzzle pieces”, and how the country and culture we live in can add another layer of beautiful complexity to this concept. We will continue to build on this idea over the course of the year, especially as we do more collaborative work with our learning partners in other countries. Before we can understand the perspectives of others, however, we need to start by looking at ourselves and what makes us who we are and how we see the world.

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I have been familiar with the work of Global Nomads Group for quite a few years, and have always been impressed with the elegant and empathetic way that they address difficult social issues and concepts. I was looking through some of their resources and found some terrific ideas in their “One World Many Stories” curriculum. I had our students work through the “Selfie” activity this week. It was really interesting to have students start to put together descriptors of what makes them unique, and it was more challenging and time consuming than I had anticipated. When we shared our selfie information with others in small groups, I encouraged students to think about how they might react to others from a place of curiosity, rather than a place of judgement if their puzzle pieces were different from one another’s, which inevitably they will be. An example of this might be if one student sees themselves as unique because they love brussels sprouts and another doesn’t, the first reaction of someone who doesn’t like them might be to judge and say, “Ewwww! Those are so gross! How could you like those?!” We talked about how we could, instead, ask questions from a place of curiosity, to find out more about the stories behind why the person liked (or didn’t like) them. When we are willing to dig deeper rather than jump straight to a judgement or opinion, we often find out things that transform our thinking and surprise us! Recognizing why someone has a certain perspective, or what contributed to them taking that perspective, can be very enlightening! As I tell the students a lot, try to keep an open mind: different people, even within our own class (but certainly those from other parts of the world), have different ideas and ways of doing things. There are multiple ways of “right” that might not be exactly the same as ours. Another way of putting it, as a colleague says to her students, “Not right. Not wrong. Just different.”

There are some terrific picture books that address the topic of perspective, which I am hoping to use with students in the next few weeks. While picture books are often seen as only of interest to younger students, many have deeper ideas and topics that make them a perfect vehicle for exploring ideas and launching amazing discussions with older students, and even adults. “They All Saw a Cat” by Brendan Wenzel will be one that I use for sure. This book is simple in format, but I think will elicit some interesting opinions from the grade 6 and 7 students I am working with. I love the idea of how each person or animal in the book is seeing the same cat, but all of them have a different perspective about what the meaning or emotion attached to that cat for them.

Another great book I am hoping to share is called, “I Like, I Don’t Like” by Anna Baccelliere, which was just introduced to me in a workshop that I was fortunate to recently attend, led by the amazing Adrienne Gear. While short on words, this book packs a big punch in addressing perspective, privilege, child labour and poverty. The last, and most directly linked to our topic of plastic pollution, is “One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia” by Miranda Paul. I am loving the “Lit With Literacy” read aloud version of this book by @theSTEAMteacher. I will have the print copy of this book available for students, but with older kids, sometimes it is nice to have a version to project on the larger screen, especially when narrated by someone with a terrific reading voice!

Have you thought about the puzzle pieces that make up who you are and what you believe? How do they make you unique?

Do you have any activities that you have used, or want to try, with students that help address the topic of perspective or worldview?

Do you have any picture books or other resources that you like to use, or want to try, with students that help address the topic of perspective or worldview?

Please share in the comments below, on Twitter, or join our Facebook group and tell us your stories there! Your voice and ideas are important and valued.

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Albatrosses and Affirmations

He went like one that hath been stunned, 
And is of sense forlorn: 
A sadder and a wiser man, 
He rose the morrow morn.

Samuel Colderidge in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The 2017/18 school year came to a close for me on Friday, and as with most endings, I became very reflective about the events that made up the period of time that just concluded. This was a hard 12 months for me - probably the most difficult I have experienced in my nearly half a century on the planet - but mixed in with the challenges, changes, troubles and tears were some amazing moments and learning that I am incredibly grateful for. Many of these happened in May and June.

I have written about the plastic pollution project that I worked on with my students in the last two months, documented in these posts: The Last Straw and Curiosity and the CAN-BAN Connection. Since this project is undoubtedly the most transformational work (for my students and for myself) that I have done in my career, I wanted to write a further update on how we wrapped things up, plans for next year, and why I feel so hopeful about the future as a result of this work. I am very proud of what we have accomplished, the fact that we are addressing important global sustainable development goals, and that we have taken our learning beyond the walls of the classroom, harnessing the power of technology to connect, create and collaborate with friends in different parts of the world.

After our friends in Bangladesh completed their school year on June 10, we no longer had collaboration partners to work on projects with for the remainder of the month, but we still delved into some deep and inspiring learning to round out the project before the end of June. One of the most powerful things we watched was a movie called, “Albatross” by Chris Jordan. Chris and his team visited Midway Island, a wildlife refuge in the North Pacific Ocean, that is inhabited only by birds, including many albatross. As there are no natural predators on the island, the birds were very trusting of the humans there to study and film them, and allowed the crew to get up close and personal in a way that made the finished product feel like a story of heartbreak and hope, a work of Art, and a beautiful piece of social activism and information all in one. These amazing creatures have been unwittingly consuming the plastic that humans have discarded and polluted the ocean with. It is killing them and their babies, their bellies and bodies damaged by the debris they confuse as dietary nourishment.  It is such an important message to watch, receive and ponder. Chris made the film available for free, starting on World Oceans Day at the beginning of June. You can view or download the full film from this webpage.

Albatross was difficult to watch, and there were few dry eyes in the classroom when the movie concluded. We had a rich discussion after the film ended, with some great connections to First Peoples’ Principles of Learning, the way that we treat and respect all living creatures, interconnectedness, and our obligation to clean up the literal and figurative mess that we have made of the planet.  One of my students commented, “I think this movie is going to stay with me for a very long time.” Multiple heads in the room nodded in agreement, mine included.

We moved on to a more joyful project by creating muppet-style puppets. While not without its frustrations (there were a few hot glue gun burns, tears and a classroom covered in strings of hot glue residue), it was definitely a memorable way of combining Art and activism. The intent was to have the students use their puppets to create a green-screened PSA video about plastic pollution and its effects on marine wildlife. The puppets were completed, scripts were written, and scenes rehearsed, but ultimately, no groups were prepared in time to film. This was disappointing for everyone, however, it opened another discussion about real-world issues: this time on meeting deadlines, working toward goals as a team, and how the learning and creation process that we engaged in was ultimately more powerful than a completed video.  You can view a gallery of some of the terrific puppet creations below. In addition to the puppets, we also learned about levels of government in Canada and what their responsibilities are, and then wrote letters to our local, provincial, and country leaders to encourage them to ban single-use plastic. It was a proud moment when the completed messages went in the mail delivery!

On the last day of school, we finished our year together by playing an eco-themed BreakoutEDU game called “Save the Planet”. While not directly related to plastic pollution, it was a terrific final critical-thinking activity to bring everything full circle.

The “prize” when they opened the box at the end was a stainless steel straw for each student. While not precious or expensive, I was gratified by the excitement and enthusiasm the students displayed when they realized what they were receiving (see video below). My friend, Pedro Aparicio, had shared some beautiful words that he wrote on the board for students on their final school day.  I was inspired to do something similar by tying a special message to each straw in the box.

My collaboration partner, Emil, and I have been doing a lot of reflection and discussion on this year’s brief version of the project together, and where we would like to take things next year when we have 10 months to really dive deep. We have invited friends/colleagues from several other countries to join us and are planning some great projects, challenges, and collaborative activities for our students to be involved in. I am excited to start in September and see how it evolves!

As I wrote final report cards for my students, I found the format a difficult medium to use to accurately assess and share what my students had done. What evidence did I have that they were engaged and learning? I received a few affirmations as the year concluded.  A parent of one of my students stopped in to see me. She said, “I know as a teacher you probably don’t often hear that you are making an impact, but I want to tell you about how what you are doing in class has changed my son.” She went on to explain that her child now refuses plastic straws when they go out for fast food or to restaurants, and tries to limit his use of other plastic containers. He is encouraging everyone in the family to do so as well. She also told me that when it was his turn to choose a fun family activity on the weekend, he requested that they all go to a local park and do beach cleanup.  It was a proud moment! Other students in my class have reported doing similar things. Some of them have started clubs outside of school, put up posters, and even created cards to leave at restaurants, either asking management to reduce or eliminate single-use plastics or praising them when they have instituted policies such as asking patrons whether or not they actually want a straw. In our own school, staff have noticed that playground litter, which had been a huge problem earlier in the year, has been greatly reduced, and that more students have been actively picking up garbage that does not belong to them. (We can’t take all the credit for this, as another grade 6/7 class has also been presenting to groups in our school about litterless lunches, etc., but we still feel proud of our part in the change!). Far more relevant and powerful than test scores, letter grades or term comments, these real-world manifestations of the learning that we have been doing make me feel certain that this is good work with a purpose that MUST continue in the fall.

I plan on mindfully relaxing and actively enjoying each moment of my summer, so the blog will likely get a bit quiet over the next two months.  That being said, please expect new posts to start flowing in the fall, brimming with excitement about the new ideas and learning activities that have been planned and engaged in. I hope you’ll continue to join me on this journey! Thank you for being a part of the adventure so far!

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Curiosity and the CAN-BAN Connection

“I’ve never met an interesting person who is not also an interested person.”  Curiosity and inquisitiveness are virtues.

- Elizabeth Gilbert (on the podcast On Being with Krista Tippett)

It is unusual to hear a teacher say that they are sad that they are running out of instructional days with their students near the end of the year, but I honestly wish we had a little bit more time. Don’t get me wrong: just like most teachers, I am absolutely exhausted, the full moon last week seemed to mysteriously make even the best students act out with unexpected behaviours, and I would rather be enjoying time on my deck in the sunshine, kayaking, or travelling rather than be cooped up in a classroom. That being said, because we are doing some AMAZING learning and collaborating, I am almost disappointed to see the end of June arrive.

Since launching our inquiry into plastic pollution in the ocean and its effect on marine animals (and the world), my students and I have really taken our learning to another level. Finding a topic that they were genuinely curious about got them really fired up and excited. The activities and collaboration that we have been participating in during the last couple weeks have added fuel to the flame. Very little of it would have been possible without the use of technology. We have been exploring young innovators like Boyan Slat from the Netherlands, who has come up with a unique way to start reclaiming plastic pollution from large, ocean garbage patches. We were extremely lucky to meet with the Florida Oceanographic Society for an excellent Skype in the Classroom program about Sea Turtle conservation. We have been brainstorming ideas for how we can promote more awareness of plastic recycling in our community. But the very best part of our learning? Our collaboration with new friends from another part of the world!

A mutual friend from the Netherlands suggested that I might find a good collaboration partner in Emil Waldhauser. Emil is a creative and talented teacher from the Czech Republic, who is currently working at the Australian International School in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This was such a timely connection, as, in our class, we had recently been looking at articles from the digital “Planet or Plastic” June edition of National Geographic, and a photo that we were particularly curious about was one from Dhaka. Emil was immediately onboard with the collaboration idea, and quickly set up some SMART Amp workspaces for us to use as an asynchronous collaboration forum - a great way of making things work despite the fact that a 13 hour time difference meant we would never be able to have our students meet in real time.  In the workspaces they have posted photos of and Google Maps links to nearby neighbourhood scenes, waterways, and plastic pollution on the beach. They even shared a terrific video about pasta straws that had my students wanting to learn more! We have been doing our best to post links in the collaborative workspaces about our city, river, garbage pick-up and recycling system, and other information that we have been learning. We shared a link to the Flipgrid videos we created to share our questions and wonders about Dhaka and plastic pollution in Bangladesh, and are waiting for our partners to comment back.  It has been extremely motivating for my students (and I think for Emil’s as well) to have an authentic peer audience for their work, and to be feeling like we are making friends in another country, while representing our own.

One thing that has really stood out to me about this collaboration is the extreme curiosity that my students have been displaying about learning more about this issue and the other countries we have been investigating as a result of our learning. While our Dutch friends were unable to fit us into their busy year-end schedule to collaborate, we still made a fun Adobe Spark video to share with them, and the process of researching and then creating it was a wonderful inquiry and learning experience. We learned some words in Dutch, and also got to have a little fun and show off our great Canadian sense of humour! ;-)

The CAN-BAN (Canada-Bangladesh) connection, however, has been the most powerful by far! Our countries and cultures are very different, and yet, we still have so many similarities. We have had some really terrific discussions in class about how the way we do things in Canada are not necessarily “right” - just normal for us, but that there are multiple ways of doing things “right” in the world. “Our” way is just one of many. We can learn a lot from how others do things. They can learn from us. We can be courageous, curious and caring. We can ask questions in respectful ways to find out more, like starting our sentences with, “I am interested to learn more about…” or “I am curious about…” or “I noticed this. Can you tell me your thoughts about it?”. We are also learning a lot about ourselves in the process, thinking about the systems and structures in place in Canada that make our country a wonderful place to live in, but that we often take for granted. This is powerful learning! 

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I have very few instructional days left with my students. We are currently trying to work on a culminating project where we make sea creature muppet-style puppets similar to these (but made from craft foam) that we’ll use to make green-screened PSA-style videos about the plastic pollution problem. We want to write letters to different levels of government and local restaurants to encourage them to reduce the amount of single-use plastic drinking straws we are using. We will make it a priority to keep sharing with our friends in Bangladesh about what we are learning and doing until they are finished their school year in mid-June.  Will we get it all done? I don’t know - and I’m not worried. The fact that my students are becoming more interesting people because they are interested and curious is more than enough for me! Better humans for the win!

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The Last Straw

This year in my classroom, we have established a few important philosophies.  The first is having a “yes, and…” attitude toward things - an improvisational technique that encourages us to “just go with” things that happen and find a way to make it work.  The second is liberal use of the small, but important word: “yet”. No person in our room is allowed to say they they are not good at something without appending the sentence with “yet” at the end (... and yes, they frequently correct their teacher on this when they catch me forgetting to do it too!).   Recently, a third catchphrase has started to embed itself in our classroom culture as well: “Do something!”

Earlier this school year, our talented District Literacy Resource Teachers introduced us to a powerful video called, “The Tree” .  The message is so transformative that we have gone back to re-watch this video multiple times since, for a variety of purposes.

Each time we have watched this as a class, we have followed up with a talking circle to discuss our thoughts on how the theme is related to our current topic. The important messages that we have pondered as a result of watching the video are that it’s important to “do something” (don’t just sit there and wait for someone else to solve the problem), that kids can make a difference, and that (based on a connection to an important message in a short TED talk by Derek Sivers that we also watched as a class) often the first couple of people to join the “lone nut” trying to start something are actually the most courageous ones, helping turn a good idea into a movement.  

This week, due to the fact that it is Earth Day (April 22), we chose to address this year’s campaign of ending plastic pollution.  As a provocation, I shared a beautifully filmed, yet challenging to watch, video trailer for a movie called “Albatross”, that illustrates the negative impact that the plastic waste being generated by humans is having on our oceans and marine/bird life.

Many of my students were shocked by the video, and had no idea that their plastic waste is impacting the planet and its inhabitants in such a harmful way.  We had a really rich talking circle after watching the video, where many of the students shared their surprise and distress. I spoke frankly to them about my honest concerns that, despite its many positive aspects, social media has helped create a culture where many of us feel that we are “making a difference” by simply clicking a “like” button, re-sharing something, or changing our profile picture to temporarily include a logo or colour scheme. While these actions can show support for a cause and help an idea to spread, if that is all we do when we are truly upset or passionate about a topic, are we really “doing something” that will lead to any positive change?  This led to more great discussion and sharing. Most agreed that more action than a "like" needs to be taken in order for something to create a measurable impact. Fifth graders can be pretty amazing, and I was impressed by their thoughtful and mature conversation!

One thing that was touched on in our talking circle, and that I will be going deeper into discussion on with my students in the next week or two, is the impact of single-use plastic drinking straws.  We’ll be watching some more provocative videos on this topic, including this difficult-to-watch piece about a beautiful sea turtle who is having a plastic straw extracted from its nasal passage, and another about a sea turtle who has a plastic fork caught in its nose.  We’ll also be talking about some exciting advances in the area of plastic waste, such as the recent discovery of a bacterial enzyme that “eats” plastic, and interesting innovations that humans are designing to try to address the problem, such as a collapsible, reusable drinking straw that fits on your keychain, and using quickly biodegrading food products to create items usually made from plastics.  I am curious to hear their thoughts on the ban on plastic drinking straws that has recently been implemented by Great Britain, and that Canada has been invited to be a part of as well.

I am interested to see, as we learn more about this topic, what my students come up with as ideas to “do something” to address this issue. Kids CAN create a difference. It only takes a few people to start a movement.  Courageous, curious and caring humans can come up with creative solutions to our world’s problems that we don’t know how to solve YET, and a “yes, and” attitude will help get us there! I wonder how we can leverage technology to make a bigger impact? I am excited to see where this goes in the next few weeks!

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