This week has been brutally cold. We had day after day of -15C to -18C temperatures, with the windchill approaching -30C. The sun has been conspiring in this, shining brightly out of clear blue skies, so one might look outside and think “oh, that looks nice” and then go outside and go up on your tip toes in horror, fur fluffed out as you try to scratch back in through the door before it closes. That’s what the dog did, anyway. The cats just sat inside and looked out, refusing to go anywhere near the door at all.
I do take the dog for her regular walk to an area of common land which is designated as an off-leash park. There are paths through the woods, and views down to the river. It can be very pleasant. Or not. Especially when you’re tentatively picking your way down a slope of ice braised clear by the wind, knowing there is no other idiot out there with their dog and so if you slip and break something you’re probably not going to be found until the spring. The dog runs and huffs and sniffs, you scan the ground for bare spots with the intensity of someone clearing land mines. Carefully placing one foot after the other, shuffling like the 80-year-old you’d like to be one day, you navigate the terrain. And then you hear the crows start their predator alert, a cacophony of cawing, and looking up watch a huge bald eagle soar over the trees and glide along the river bank in front of you. Majestic doesn’t do enough to describe the scene, and your steps are lighter as you make your way back to the car.
The cold snap broke eventually, it got up to almost -5 the other night, but with the warmth comes the next storm. It came from New Brunswick, after hammering Toronto and Ottawa and Montreal and Quebec, almost 30 cms. of light dry snow falling through the day. And then the winds, picking up to over 70 kms/hour and picking up the snow from the ground to mix it with that still falling. Horizontal snow, pitting your face like a flurry of stones thrown up by a car racing through a turn.
It’s on days like this that one faces the age-old conundrum. Did we buy enough storm chips and, if not, whose turn is it to go out and get some more?
Storm chips are a bit of an Island phenomenon. They’re basically just potato chips, or crisps to those of us who grew up in England, on sale in every supermarket. A tradition developed where people buying emergency supplies before a storm – candles, water, tinned food, and so forth – would also throw in a bag of chips, as comfort food for those long evenings when the power’s out and there is nothing to do. A few years ago, a young woman called Jill Ross, a B.Ed. graduate who was helping with administrative duties in the Faculty of Education at the time, tweeted that her family was ready for an imminent storm because she had “got our storm chips”. The term was picked up and retweeted by others and is now so widespread that a local company manufactures bags of “Storm Chips”. These are all the leftover bits from the specific flavour bags and so you have no idea whether you’re going to get something plain, salt and vinegar, cheese and onion, or whatever, they’re all mixed up together! I know it sounds disgusting but they’re actually pretty good. Especially when sitting by the fire with a nice cup of tea or other beverage of choice!
I was doing just that the other evening – sitting by the fire, munching, sipping – and thinking about the delayed class I taught this week. It was supposed to have been on Friday, but we had a storm then as well, so it was deferred to Monday. This was special as it was my last class as a teacher educator. I’d like to say that it was the best class I’ve ever taught, or that we finished with a cake and a sing-song, but we did none of those things. I taught the last topic on the syllabus, the students made presentations about what they had learned, and we all left the room. I did insert a last slide, where I tried to synthesize what being a teacher meant to me, but I don’t think anyone really noticed. I think the students were too preoccupied with their upcoming practicum placements. They’re all going out to schools for the next 11 weeks, half the time in an international placement and the other half in Canada, and their focus is on the practical needs of teaching – the what-will-work-on-Monday sort of stuff.
I try to remember if I was like that when I was a student, impatient with theory and focused only on what works in the classroom. I don’t remember it that way – I remember enjoying the texts on the philosophy and sociology of education, entering in to the arguments about conscientization and the teacher as subversive, learning the nuances of Vygotsky and Freire. I still think it makes for a better teacher, one who considers practice to be the result of thoughtful consideration, not simply reactive behaviour.
I’m also not sure that a teacher education program offered by a university is the place to learn the practical skills of teaching. I still believe that the university is supposed to be a place of ideas, of challenge, of debate, not a place where technical skills are taught or prioritized. I know that the classroom has changed, that student teachers today are facing challenges quite different from those of nearly half a century ago. The ubiquitous cell phones in everyone’s pocket contain more information, and more computer power, than anything even dreamed of when we were setting the world to rights. Each school where they practice is going to be different, and so equipping our students with the intellectual skills to understand the contextual nuances of every different classroom they experience seems likely to be a more useful learning process. That’s why we call it teacher education, not teacher training.
And then I think, ah, you’re just getting to be one of those ‘seasoned veterans’ (aka old codgers) who remembers the good old days as being better than anything happening in the here and now. After all, nobody writes songs any more like Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Townsend and Daltrey. For heaven’s sake, you still read books, and walk around without wire dangling from your ears, and go to a coffee shop only when you want to drink coffee. How reactionary is that?
So, I was sitting by the fire thinking these things, and feeling all introspective, when the universe righted itself and brought life back in to balance. I received an e-mail to inform me that I have been selected as the recipient of the inaugural UPEI Faculty of Graduate Studies Award for Outstanding Graduate Student Mentorship. I consider this a huge honour, one of the high points of my career as a prof. Working with students is something I’ve always enjoyed, and their success is something on which I’ve tried to keep focused, so to have this recognized in such a way is incredible. The nomination was apparently made by students from both UPEI and Calgary, they all got together and wrote letters. I am truly touched. The Committee is charge of this award have asked me to give a keynote presentation at the spring Graduate Studies Research Conference, so I guess I’ll have to try and think of something to say.
There must be a line I can steal from Leonard Cohen …