Monday, June 28, 2010

The High School Reunion


Why do we do it to ourselves? We get that e-mail or facebook message announcing our 30-year high school reunion and we type, “Yes, I''ll attend.” Have we not learned anything? We are willing to go back to where we once hailed from a place of not fitting in socially and where no one paid any attention to us. So why would they notice us now? Do we go back to see who’s fatter, balder, happier, most popular, or most likely to have succeeded?
The same people who didn’t talk to us back then, won’t be making their way over to say “Hello” now. If it’s anything like my 10th the same cliques will prevail. So why would I go back? Is it to say: “Look at me now!” or “Look at her/him now!” ? I’ve grown so much (and not just poundage-wise!) since those years of uncertainty and come into my own. There’s no nostalgia for me in going back to a place I couldn’t wait to leave. Do we go back perhaps to change other people’s perceptions of us? I think we go back because we wish we were back.
Okay, so the countdown is on—2 months to go—to the gym, shed 10 or 20 pounds, get a life, in case I decide to attend my 30th high school reunion. Who knows…maybe I’ll meet that cute guy I once had a horrible crush on and see that he’s balding, sporting a paunch and living in a cardboard box under a train bridge!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Learning as a Conversation

When someone shares their life experience, their opinions, their ideas, what can we learn from this telling? It occurs to me from all my years of formal education and informal learning that learning is no more than a conversation between its participants. The teacher relating a situation, the student sharing a personal experience, the  professor hosting an open discussion, two neighbors talking, the stranger at the bus stop striking up a conversation, the child telling of her day--all are sharing lived and meaningful experience, giving and taking in an exchange that is ultimately one of learning.

The idea of learning as a conversation interests me because how else do we learn except through the passing on of information that is read, heard or lived? We take this information, assimilating it to mean what we need and want it to mean. We mold it into our personal rhetoric, deriving its usefulness for our own lives. Interesting how we never know what we are thinking until we say it. This becomes our learning. I heard a guest lecturer at McGill University once say that this is what makes our learning because our thoughts are on the tips of our tongues and we just need the opportunity to express them.

As facilitators of adult learning, we experience this conversational learning regularly. Yet what can we do to keep the discussion flowing in our classes? How do we include everyone in the discourse? Just like in conversation, an open discussion requires, above all, an animator--one who knows the value of silence. Here are some elements to implement in our learning conversations to stimulate the discussion and keep it going so that each person is engaged, interested and benefits from the collective sharing:

  1. Make good use of wait times. One the question or issue is out there, as educator, don't be too quick to jump in when no one responds immediately. Let the silence prod someone else into speaking.
  2. Ask open-ended questions using the 5 W's and a H (who, what, when ...) to elicit critical thinking and discussion from your learners.
  3. Use your active listening skills to validate your learners. This is so much better than the pat response: "That's a good answer Julie!" Instead, try: "If I understand what you are saying, Julie, is that...(then pause) Does anyone else have a different opinion?"
  4. Refer back to what was said earlier in the discussion, making use of the learner's name: "Sam said x or y about the issue earlier and now I am hearing Julie say..."
  5. Include all learners in the conversation by making eye contact with and smiling at even the silent ones.
  6. Look for body language clues that someone wants to talk. If they keep getting cut off by a more vocal learner, interject with: "Maureen would like to add something to the discussion."
  7. Let the learners speak to each other as opposed to going through you just because you are the teacher at the front of the class. Better yet, if you have the desks in a circle, this sharing happens more easily. As facilitator, you should always sit in the circle.
  8. Because it is so difficult to tear ourselves away from a good conversation, summarize the main points of what was said before moving on. Then say something like: "This gives us lots to think about." Similar to the end of a good counseling session when you still have more to say, your learners will take this information away for thought and look forward to the next discussion.

I always tell my groups that each class participant is a teacher and I am fortunate to be among them, to the point that when someone asks a question, I say: "Let's see what our panel of experts think..." So, next time you are in the throes of an exciting class discussion, use it as a golden learning opportunity for your learners and yourself. Your learners will want to keep coming back!

* Article first printed in QAAL's Linking for Learning newsletter, Vol. 17, No. 1, Fall 1999.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Birth and Rebirth

I love birth. And I love rebirth. Birth is our first chance and rebirth is our second chance. I was born once. And every day I wake up to my rebirth. It’s that simple. And what a lovely thought really, because you can’t take it back—birth, I mean. You can’t just throw down your shovel in the sand and say: “That’s it! I’m not playing anymore. I’m going home!” and then just leave. For where would you go? Oh sure, you can die, and go wherever you go after the maggots taste you, but where would you go really? I’d rather not think about it! No, I’m here, birthed because my mother loved me enough to go through the pain of childbirth and then because I loved me enough to go through the pain of each new day. Not that it’s all pain. Each day is a rebirth, a chance to do it over again differently. It’s a chance to be grateful for all that I have, to dream about all that I can have and generally bask in the idea that each day is a celebration of my own birth.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Cat Mewsings Part II

When a 6th cat showed up at our door back in November 2009, he came to steal the salmon we were curing on the back deck, readying it for smoking. We kept chasing him away as two of our own cats sat idly watching him with only mild curiosity in the midst of his crime. We’d open the door and stamped our feet, effectively chasing the smokey grey kitten away. Thus began our relationship with cat number 6! We’d open the door and he would run, each time, returning with a new and bolder resolve. By day’s end, the feline was sitting comfortably inside our home like he had always been there. Of course, we could not turn away a hungry seemingly homeless 4-month old kitten! So the cat went from stealing the salmon, to stealing our hearts!

“They put this bell on a collar around my neck. No wonder I chase my tail!”

“I hate it that they insist on holding me down to cut my nails,” said one of our cats to his confreres. “Well,” we told him as we tell all of them: “Bi-monthly pedicures are a condition of living in our home.”

During a conference at which he was a speaker, a colleague of mine commented that getting people to go back to their seats is much like herding cats…I use canned tuna to herd my 6 cats! I’ll bet a five-course sit-down dinner will do the same for humans at a conference.

I browsed Pamela Wallin’s book about cats at Chapters Bookstore, and one of her reflections really struck me: How can you feel stressed when you're petting a purring cat?

Isn't it interesting how you might have mice in your home and the cats only notice when you've caught them in a mouse trap.

We live in a society where people move and leave their cats behind, where people love cute cuddly kittens…until they grow up, where people get cats and but don’t get them neutered. Responsible cat ownership means taking responsibility for their reproduction. Not neutering your cat begets more cats!

* Image: Ginger Bear and Boo staring each other down over the prey in the bathroom cabinet drawer.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Would you Rather Die than Public Speak?

At the Book Summit in Toronto last week, I was intrigued by the notion that writers do not necessarily make good presenters and readers. I take for granted that I am a writer who has been teaching for over 15 years and how this helps me in my writing.

My first college presentation of a psychology research project involving learning and touch was a nightmare! I conducted a study with kindergarten students. The not so easy part was reporting my findings in a 15-minute presentation. I was having an out of body experience, looking down on the blabbering idiot--me--standing before my peers!. I was hot, cold, sweaty, nervous and otherwise a wreck. What a relief it was to be sent back to my seat by a sympathetic professor!

If someone had told me back then that I would be standing before groups of students and then professionals of 50 or more today, I'd have told them they were delusional! Public speaking still ranks up there with the fear of death. And sometimes we'd rather just die than speak in public.

Before teaching, I found myself at Toastmasters, giving prepared speeches. I wasn't yet a teacher, but I had long known the value of being able to speak in public. Toastmasters was a wonderful way to get comfortable with public speaking. Then I took an acting course. This helped immensely with voice projection and body control.

My own classes and professional development training sessions are completely interactive. My students come in quaking with the fear of presenting, but by the end of the course, they don't want to stop talking in front of their peers. I believe this is the single most important activity we can do and practice to become confident in all areas of our lives.


It is important to understand the value of honing public speaking skills as writers. As a writer, you will have many opportunities to promote your work. These may include book launches and public readings. How will you survive these? It's one thing sitting in your comfort writing zone, but quite another facing your fans and public.

Think about your reading voice. Is it monotone? Do you make eye contact with your audience? If you are giving a talk, are you talking or reading? Do you engage with your audience? Anything you put between your audience and yourself will only distance you. Power point presentations are great, but avoid using them as crutches. Use slides to simply illustrate. They should not replace you. A stage with a podium and microphone are wonderful tools, but use your floorspace rather than hiding behind a podium. Get close to your audience by coming to the edge of the stage or by even sitting on it.

Always remember that people attend your event, presentation, reading or launch to see and hear YOU! Now, go practice by standing in front of your bathroom mirror and reading an excerpt from your latest book.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

World Elder Abuse Day

Seniors are a vulnerable group. And this fact could not be more true today as we raise awareness about the issue of the mistreatment of seniors in recognition of World Elder Abuse Day. This means being aware of the ways in which seniors, especially those who cannot advocate for themselves, are abused: emotionally, financially and physically.

According to the CSSS Cavendish (Montreal), an estimated 4-10% of seniors are victims of elder abuse. Elder abuse can take the form of physical and sexual mistreatment and violence, verbal abuse, financial exploitation, denial of basic human rights and neglect.

This issue is delicate because while a senior might be dependent upon someone for their care, if that same someone is abusing them, there might be a reticence to report it. Like any abuse, the abused may feel powerless to identify it, let alone take steps to deal with it for fear of reprisal and retribution from the person they depend upon. That is why elder abuse is called a hidden problem. According to the CSSS Cavendish (Montreal), this makes it harder for the professional to deal with because the abused may be protecting their abuser out of fear of: abandonment, placement, imprisonment of a relative, vengeance or reprisals and loss of services.




This is why seniors need to be able to reach out for help. There are help lines available for people who feel they may be victims of elder abuse, as well as victim assistance programs, which include:
In Quebec - Elder Abuse Information/Help Line (Listening, support and resource line): 1-888-489-2287 and CAVAC
In Ontario, available to the rest of Canada: Toll free helpline 1-800-387-5559
State Elder Abuse Hotlines in the US

And your local police and 9-1-1.

As we care-give and advocate for our seniors today, let's be mindful that their vulnerability might one day be our own. We need to protect seniors and their interests as we do ours and as we would like done for us.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

How do I blog?

How do I blog? Let me count the ways...


In my pajamas
At 2 in the morning
Never the same
Never boring
Always with pictures and paragraphs
Sometimes try to make people laugh
With insight and inspiration
And even frustration
About incidents
And accidents
Coincidence
And happenstance
I love to blog
Many ways

How do you blog (or write)?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Get a Mentor, Be a Mentor!

Mentoring...ah, yes, that wonderful relationship whereby someone gives you feedback about your work and it helps you to grow. Have you ever had someone special to call upon in a personal or professional context? That would be your mentor. Mentors are special because they are available. And while they provide feedback, they are not critical or judgmental. We might have a writing mentor who reads and edits our work, helping us to see the forest through the trees. Or we may be the mentor, doing this for someone else.

I've had teaching mentors and now have writing mentors. The mentoring relationship is special because it is built on trust. Although we look to the mentor for their experience and expertise, the mentoring relationship is not about one-upmanship. We've all been there, a novice at something and searching for a guiding light to become more adept, more skilled, and ultimately more polished. And the mentoring relationship also has the potential to develop into two-way mentoring as the protegee becomes accomplished, for we all have different skills to share.


It reminds me of the power of many versus the one. And this message was clearly delivered at the YES Montreal Conference yesterday entitled: Business Skills for Creative Souls. All people who attain a level of success, had help getting there. Indeed there will always be the naysayers or those who rain on your parade, thinking that you won't really make it as an artist (or in whatever profession you choose). But you need to seek and find other like-minded people who have made it and associate with them.

In Milton Olsen's story Lessons from Geese, we understand how geese who fly in formation and work together reach their destination. So must we humans fly together. In my teaching I came across the acronym for TEAM as Together Everyone Achieves More! Now how cool is that? Do you have a mentor? Do you mentor others? How do you see the mentoring relationship?