Category Archives: Teaching

My Mother’s Voice

Greta Tvys Balen circa 1975

I want to create a metaphor for influence.  

Rocks in water causing ripples, threads woven into a quilt of life, seeds planted, but none will do. 

They do not speak to the measure, the weight, or the colour of her influence. Of course, I have always said that my mom is the most influential person in my life. That she shared her understanding of the world and of relationships there is no doubt. That she refused to criticize, and judge people was always clear. That she guided and supported me through storytelling and listening is true. But, the profound nature of her thinking about life and her love for life surrounds me every day. She has been gone for 24 years, and still her voice is with me. 

My mother’s voice was strong and clear. Born to immigrant parents her stories resonated the past, but they were grounded in the present. Her father and mother came to Canada for disparate reasons and met as the dark days of the great depression settled upon the land. They forged out a life as many newcomers do, working where they could, moving with the boom and bust of the mining industry. Her father became a proficient carpenter and provided well for his family. He connected with the place, learning about the seasons and the soil, the waterways and the bush. He made dandelion wine and jarred wild mushrooms. He fished the lakes and brought home a moose each fall. But he was a man who had walked away from a more sophisticated life as a teacher, violinist and linguist. My mother would not fail him, here, in this new land. 

My mother’s voice was whimsical. Beyond the seriousness of life, of working and doing good work, she enjoyed the beauty that surrounded her. Pussy willows growing along the roadside, and her favourite, the lady slipper. To this day, I stumble upon wildflowers pressed in wax paper as I flip through her books. 

My mother’s voice calling down the corridor of the school, herding her charges into class. This is where she made a difference. Way ahead of her time, she helped her grade three students think about big issues like racism and freedom. I will never forget how she integrated the culture of First Nations people into the classroom through stories and artifacts, and how she connected the poppy and the poem, “In Flander’s Fields”, in a way that made me feel proud and sad at the same time. How many of her students still carry her voice with them is impossible to calculate. 

My mother’s voice. Always present with just the right words. She got it right because she listened. She built bridges for new family members to cross and so created great allegiances. Everyone had a role in this family. She reminded me that love is enough to raise a child, and that I was a good mother. 

My mother’s voice weak with disease rose over the pain and fear to tell me that we had a great 34 years together–that we will always have that time. 

And that time was filled with her creating all manner of things. She made castle birthday cakes, homemade pogos, costumes, candles in the middle of the night, and the silk bouquet for my wedding. 

My kids were two, four, and six when cancer got the better of my mother. They will never remember her. For the kids, she is a character, a legend, maybe even a myth. There is a picture on my wall of her listening to my then three-year-old daughter, a big orange flower tucked behind her right ear, and she is smiling at her granddaughter. There is another of her, a winter coat over her housedress, out in the snow feeding the chickadees. “Remember,” say the photographs. “Remember that I lived life fully, and in the moment.” 

My kids will remember hot days at the beach, building sandcastles, working the soil of new gardens, collecting leaves in the fall, and feeding chickadees in the snow. They will remember me listening intently, and then, telling stories that teach. They will remember my passion for learning and especially for books. They will remember my deep, deep love for them. But they will never know that I am me because of her. 

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Building a family

To the family of Frank Balen & Greta Tvys Balen

Where to begin? I could talk today about all the things my father taught me –how to clean a fish, paddle a canoe, find the best blueberry patch.

I could recount memories of my father’s kindness and generosity–the morning calls he made from work to me at university to check in with me, OR the countless hours walking the Sunsite estate deck with 6-week old Paul, then Mikaela, then Geordie on his shoulder. Or volunteering to be my driver for weeks of radiation treatment I needed in Sudbury.

But I’m not.

Instead, I want to talk about this event —this celebration of life as the celebration of family because when I think of Frank– I think of Greta. And when I think of Greta, I think of Frank. And what I think about is the work they did together to build a family.

Where I work I am constantly faced with questions about identity, belonging, truth, and reconciliation. My students’ struggle to find their place, to make sense of what it means to be Anishinabe in the 21st century—to simultaneously be able to cheer on the Raptors and to turn their backs on Canada 150. And their struggle is causing many of us to wonder about our own sense of identity.

Nation building is hard work. It’s hard work because our differences push at us, demanding our attention when what we need to do is respond to the pull of our shared values. And we need to trust that others will do the same.

I remember my mom telling me about a time when a colleague of hers threatened to make a play for Frank. Mom, pregnant at the time, told her “go ahead if you can get him, he was never mine. But you won’t get him.”

Along with their love and profound trust in each other, our parents shared a progressive perspective.

Remember mom working through pregnancies and staying in the workforce afterwards; changing careers mid-life. I recall the day she told us that she had received her real estate license…dad’s face beaming with happiness for her.

Remember mom and dad living and working apart in 1976 long before it became common practice: mom, David and I living in Hull and Dad in Mattagami.

Remember, dad embracing 21st-century communication in his 80s learning how to use a tablet and then connecting virtually with many of you at Mike’s funeral.

They were so modern.

We can wonder why they were so progressive. It could be because of the times, their upbringing and education. But I think it might have more to do with their desire to belong in this new country. Frank and Greta never turned their backs on their past—traditions like colouring easter eggs and hosting lamb barbecues and in particular serving foods like palacinke, pierogi, cabbage rolls, kapusta, and kugelis lived on in their home. But, there were no trips back to the old country, no tamburica lessons and dad refused to teach me how to speak Croatian.

We were Canadian. We had a camp. We fished and hunted. We went to Expo….Ca-na-da 1 little, 2 little, 3 Canadians. We love thee. Now we are twenty million. 

And mom and dad did love Canada–from the rocky Cambrian shield to the red bluffs of PEI. I suppose there were times when we rocketed to our destinations, but what I remember most is mom calling out, “Antique shop just ahead, the sign says 10 miles”. We’d groan. Or dad announcing, “Ice cream in 5 miles! Anyone interested?”

Mom loved antiques—Canadiana in particular. Pine tables, press back chairs, hurricane lamps. When you’re not from the place you’re in, you have to construct your past. Surrounding themselves with antiques is one way to say we belong.

But there were others. Everywhere they lived, mom and dad purchased art by local artists. Paintings and quill boxes. Dad continued this custom most recently purchasing two Norval Morriseau prints. I remember how proud and excited he was to add them to his collection.

Image of “Sermon to the birds” from bearclaw gallery

I believe that mom and dad worked intentionally to build a narrative for us: a past, present, and future. To ground that story in this place—you belong here.

This land is my land. This land is your land.

There is no family home to pass on; no legacy other than the story they created together. And what a story it is.

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A New Way of Reading

This book- Reader Come Home – will be the next professional book I read. I went looking for a review after reading a series of tweets by Heidi Siwak and Matthew Oldridge about Wolf’s book and found this one by Jo Facer who provides a compelling review.

Reading all the Books

I knew I had to read this book when I heard Doug Lemov endorsing it. Reader, Come Homesells itself as a portrayal of the reading state of the nation. It is really about the state of humanity.

The author points out that the Ancient Greeks were concerned that rising literacy would fundamentally change people’s ability to remember, and that they weren’t wrong: the rise of reading did change the way our brains worked, making memory weaker, and remarkably rapidly. So today, with the rise in digital devices, both the way we read and the way our minds work has shifted. But are we worried about the right things this time? Our fears seem centred around the fact that more children (and adults, truth be told) are not reading… But they are.

In fact, we are reading more than ever before: the author quotes studies that reveal we are reading…

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Why take on the #oneword challenge?

There are many reasons why one would take on this challenge, but for most, it comes down to focus and intentionality. Having one word through which to “see” your practice, to guide your work, and to reflect on your professional learning gives you a chance to be really intentional about your professional growth. Having one word to concentrate on allows you the time to delve into the nuances of the word, to look at it from various angles, to hold it close and then to view it from a distance. Having one word gives you the chance to be shaped by it.

Scroll through our Twitter hashtag #onewordOnt to read the vibrant and supportive conversation in this community.

Read a few of the #onewordOnt 2018 posts found on the community G+ site:

Finally, to ensure that I don’t miss your word, please check this document before January 18th.  If your word is missing, let me know via Twitter or in the comments below.

I am so eager to see our 2019 list!

Context:The #OneWordONT project began in 2015 with #OSSEMOOC (Ontario School and System Leaders Edtech MOOC – OSAPAC’s community of leaders learning how technology can change practice in education). By 2017, the Ontario Ministry of Education cut funding for OSSEMOOC, but I decided to continue the project since I believe that it helps build community and it offers a personal, non-threatening entry point to Twitter specifically and to a PLN generally

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