Every Idea Begins With a Spark

I came upon a quote yesterday that I wanted to share. It is a message that every student should hear in some form every day.

Be innovative in your thinking and bold in your learning.

– Sabine Lague 2011

(The original quote is in first person.)

I thought it would be great as part of a BigHuge Labs Motivator poster, but then I found more than one photograph that would be perfect for the poster.

It occurred to me quite abruptly that I have not posted a photo essay in a long while. So the genesis of this post — a mix of photos and quotes.


IMG_0486IMG_0486 © 2008 Chazz Layne | more info (via: FlickrStorm)
Every Idea Begins With a Spark







EUREKA! I Found it!EUREKA! I Found it! © 2008 g d (Gary Dean) t???????d? | more info (via: FlickrStorm)
That Grow With Focus and Imagination into a Dream.



Humboldt GasworksHumboldt Gasworks © 2005 Cassidy Curtis | more info (via: FlickrStorm)
Whatever You Do, or Dream You Can, Begin It,
– W. H. Murray



Foxy!Foxy! © 2008 Wavy1 | more info (via: FlickrStorm)
For Ideas Rarely



The Thought Fox

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

Webster, Richard. (2002, 1984.) ‘The Thought Fox’ and the poetry of Ted Hughes. The Critical Quarterly vol, 26, no. 4, 1984. http://www.richardwebster.net/tedhughes.html.




Life Offers Many Paths.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;




Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,




And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.




I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Frost, Robert. (1916.) The Road Not Taken (poem). Mountain Interval. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Road_Not_Taken.


Creamsicle SunsetCreamsicle Sunset © 2008 Evan Leeson | more info (via: FlickrStorm)
Keep Adventure in Your Heart and Pick the Paths that Excite You Most.



Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

– Howard Thurman

Realize Your Dreams.


Success Imagemap



Everything you want in life is right outside your comfort zone.

– Bob Allen

Be innovative in your thinking and bold in your learning.

– Sabine Lague


Engaging Kids: A Little Classroom Humour



There has been a recent rash of puns spreading around one of the schools I sub at. It has infected kids at all grade levels from 5 to 12. Of course, being called in to teach occasionally, I happened to walk into this contagious disease with no warning and no defence last Thursday and Friday.

My kids tried to infect me twice with puns on Thursday. Unfortunately, I was rather vaporous on that day, so I did not catch on to either attack and thwarted the jokes.

The Mistaken Challenge

The first attack came from my Science 9 students. I can not remember the pun and ruined the joke anyway. The students grudgingly revealed what they were trying to get me to say (without getting in trouble). I remember being glad I didn’t. My guess now is that the pun must have been inappropriate to school anyway.

(At this point, I should confess that I am a stickler when it comes to swearing or inappropriate topics from my kids. This deters my kids for about 15 seconds after I warn them not to engage in such behaviour. Then the fun begins: trying to find ways to tease Mr. Urban. This particular pun was their latest effort.)

Still, my kids were unaware that I hadn’t caught on. I am sure they have taken my sidestepping of the pun as a challenge, so I expect more cunning attempts to get me to break one of my own rules.

These kids just crack me up. They are so eager and clever. And for the most part, when I ask them to, they willingly engage in the learning activity at hand.

There is always room to play and enjoy class. My kids like joking with me; I am easy enough to let them bait me, yet usually wise enough to get out of their traps.



The Unintended Lesson

The second attack came from my Grade 12 math students. My Grade 12s were a little more cautious with their pun, choosing one that was barely offensive.

But, again, I did not catch on. And how spectacular the result.

I have watched these kids grow up from Grade 7 and am absolutely fascinated at how mature and confident they have become. I can’t tell you how awed and full of pride of them I am. So, yes, I was targeted again.

The pun was simple. My kids asked me “what is that under there?” and I was supposed to reply “under where?”

I did not.

Being obtuse


Really, it never occurred to me to even ask that. Over there were cabinets and shelves sitting without gap on the floor and a well raised table clearly with nothing under it.

I was supervising a probability quiz and wrote it myself along with them. (Probability, permutation and combination just confuse me. I can not make heads nor tails out of them. The quiz had a few sporting coin questions in it by the way.)

So I was thinking mathematically, systematically and about test question quality. I ended up pitching against the ambiguity of vague questions with my kids, particularly the one they were asking me, and they in turn kept trying rather desperately to get me to ask that magical pun-question. Dialogues of the obtuse are so amusing.

It all ended up in laughter and teacher-student bonding that would never have happened had I clued into the pun at any time.

One boy grinned that the joke turned out better than my kids had planned. A girl told me that I really got her thinking about clarity and definitions. Everyone, including me, ended the day with renewed energy and a smile.

Yeah, I was thick on Thursday. I normally take questions and comments at face value. I rarely look for ways to make this or that perverse by some lateral interpretation. I am eager to help.

And I love the way I am, and my kids. They can fool me any time they want, so long of course that doing so does not interfere with their learning activity.

I feel much closer today to these two classes of students, particularly the Grade 12s, as a result of this jocularity.

A little humour in the classroom is engaging and builds strong bonds. I am ecstatic that I subbed these kids on Thursday. A lot was won.



9.11: Where I Was

Today is the tenth anniversary of the 9.11 attacks on the United States, the first attack on the US since the 1941 Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor. The choice of that year, sixty years after Pearl Harbor, and that date, exploiting the Canadian and American emergency number 911 so 9.1.1 could be repeated throughout the day, was callous and strategic.

In Canada, the attacks came as a shock and we sprang into action, helping our neighbour where and how we could. Certainly, our hearts, our prayers and our homes went out to our American friends. And so did our anger. For several decades, Canada had built a reputation as a peacekeeping force around the World. But 9.11 changed that and we went to war, taking our stand beside our allies against terrorism. For us, our role of peacekeeping returned to that of active fighting.

Canadians take the 9.11 attack on the US seriously and personally. Not only were many Canadians killed in 9.11, but we took a defensive posture over our friend on September 11th and fought alongside them since.

As a base brat and station civ, I was certainly personally affected by the attack. My Dad served in the Canadian Armed Forces and though he retired before 9.11, I felt a deep pang for all the soldiers who were deployed as a result of 9.11. My Dad served overseas under NATO command and during his service in Germany local terrorists, the Baader-Meinhof Group, threatened American and Canadian bases and personnel.

Needless to say, I am extremely proud of my Dad’s role in the defense of Canada, Europe and the World.

On September 11, I hopped on my treadmill, one year and a couple of weeks after my heart transplant, and turned on my radio. The first thing I heard was David Rutherford reporting that the United States was under an attack of unknown scope.

My parents were in the computer room. I ran in and relayed the news. They didn’t believe me until I convinced them to turn on CNN News.

That is when 9.11 struck my home, the day when the War on Terrorism began.

My heart goes out to the families of the victims and survivors of the 9.11 attacks. Today, the whole World remembers. And this Canadian mourns with you.

May you sleep well tonight, knowing you are not forgotten.

Jack Layton: A Message for All

This morning, at 4:30 am, Jack Layton, leader of the Federal NDP and of the official opposition of Canada, died of cancer at the age of 61.

This is an excerpt from a letter he wrote and left to the people of Canada and the World.

“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

Though I never voted for the NDP, Canada has lost a great politician today. He was intelligent, articulate and charismatic.

The quote above applies to all people, but perhaps as educators we can take its message to our classrooms.

Update: A few days have passed since Jack Layton’s death. I have moved from nostalgically reviewing his life to constructively reflecting on his influence. And I want to share one influential role he can still model for our students. In fact, this is probably his deepest legacy, for it empowers students now and in the future while they are in school.

Another message Jack left us he wrote in his high school graduating yearbook.

“I leave to become prime minister.”

Simple words, but they reverberate against our perception of education, how we teach and how students grow.

Sometimes our students, as did we, live in life rather than shape life around them and their dreams. Sometimes they have no idea what life has to offer. Sometimes they are overwhelmed by the choices we present them. Sometimes they have no idea that they can live any life they dream. Sometimes they feel tunnelled into predetermined lives.

We have to remind them that their dreams are attainable and show them how to work toward them. We have to do this, because if we don’t we crush them. What is our job? Our job is to teach, to guide, to provide and show opportunities, and to help them see how special they really are.

Like our students, Jack Layton attended school and wondered what life offered him. He had dreams and he had doubts. But he never gave up. He learned how to pursue his dreams and he pursued them.

He was a student, not different at all from each of our students. We all were students experiencing the same doubts and dreams.

What did he do differently? He believed in his dreams.

That is Jack Layton’s deepest legacy. How many Jack Laytons are in your classroom? I bet there are as many as students that pass over your threshold.

My Life Transformed

I always wanted to be three things: a writer, an ecologist and a teacher. I have lived a very good life, for I have managed to accomplish each of these careers. I just had a different plan on how I would become a teacher.

For almost two weeks I agonized about writing this post. Actually, it has been a worry since I began this blog. Of all my posts, this one is a game changer. I am not sure how you will react.

The schools I work at and board I work for know about this, but they are in a position to do something about it when circumstance requires response.

You are not and therefore knowing about this does not serve either of us, I thought.

Then last week happened.

If you could save a life, would you?

Last week was National Organ and Tissue Donation Awareness Week (NOTDAW). It is actually an international recognition of the need for and celebration of the generosity of organ and tissue donors.

I attended a joint celebration of NOTDAW and the twenty-fifth anniversary of lung and heart transplants in Alberta in the Guru Nanak Dev Healing Garden of the Mazankowski Heart Institute thirteen days ago. At this celebration, doctors, recipients, donor families, recipient families, live donors and media gathered together to meet, re-meet and share stories. Many of the founding Alberta and University Hospital transplant doctors and the longest living heart and lung adult and pediatric recipients attended. They were all there to share in a very personal way the message that organ and tissue donation, particularly heart and lung organ donation, exponentially saves and improves lives.

My gift

The most touching moment of the celebration for me was when the daughter of a man asked all the people in the third and fourth rows to stand up. She then listed all of the organs and tissues that her father donated to various people upon his death. Twenty-eight people were saved and now live better quality lives. The daughter’s presentation was poignant, all the more so because I was one of the people who stood up.

In August of 2000, several fatal accidents killed people in Manitoba, Northwest Territories and Alberta. I had fainted two days earlier and so was in the hospital already. I had been given five years before a transplant was necessary, but, when I fainted, within a year, I was a month away from dying. I was the first person to get a transplant from the generous organ donors who died in those accidents.

My heart had succumbed to a condition called idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy. Essentially, my heart grew so weak that it stretched like a balloon and was on its way to popping. On hindsight, symptoms existed all my life. But when you live with them since infancy, you are not aware of them. My cardiologists believe I was infected with an aggressive individual or colony of a common and normally unremarkable virus when I was an infant.

Transformative journey

At the time that I was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, I was applying to a PhD position in ecology. I had been accepted by the University of Calgary and was waiting acceptance from the University of Alberta, where the specialists I wanted to become my supervisors taught. I never did discover whether the U of A accepted me or not.

My plan was simple. I love writing and nature. I chose to write as a hobby and study nature as a career. I engaged in different fields of study in ecology with each degree I took. And I worked so many years between my Masters and coming Doctorate studies in yet another field. I had planned to work in yet another field or other fields after my PhD, then with this breadth of skill and technology retire from ecology and become a teacher rich with academic and practical biological and writing experience. You see, I wanted to pass forward my passion. I wanted my passion to be my legacy.

But my cardiomyopathy cut this short. I discovered that I could no longer work outside, so I decided to become a teacher right away. And so I am here, with the restriction that I lack the stamina to work regularly part or full time. With much deliberation, I decided to remain a substitute teacher, where I get to experience many classes, many grades, many subjects and many schools. I chose my blog title to reflect this decision.

My heartfelt thanks

If it were not for an unfortunate and undisclosed man or woman who signed an organ and tissue donation card, I would have died eleven and a half years ago. Then I would not have realized my dream to become a teacher, I would not have met the wonderful and fascinating students who so enrich my life and I would not have met any of you. My life is indeed rich and spectacular.

I wonder several times every hour about the person who had died and saved my life in the same act. His or her sacrifice and generosity inspire me to be better at everything I can control each day than I was the day before. I never try my best, for I refuse to create a ceiling for myself. I love. I thank. I rejoice.

I have mixed feelings when I think about my savior and her or his family. I am grateful, thankful and sorry. And I almost forgot to say it enough.

Writing this post

Your heart is a wonder of physiology and evolution. It is more than just a pump, a piece of muscle that pushes fluid through your body. It has its own “nervous” system, sensors and metronomes. When it works properly, it operates non-stop for every second of your entire life. Its activity is not perpetual, but it is constant.

I was really reluctant to write this post. I saw only harm come from doing so. If this post were about me at all, I would not have written it.

But it is not about me, is it?

You see, last week I attended a celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of heart and lung transplants in Alberta. And I stood up while a furiously proud daughter of a donor listed how her father saved and improved as many lives after death as he did during life. And I wanted to say thank you, even though I never benefitted from this man until that moment.

But I benefitted from someone and that someone lost everything so I could benefit.

I dedicate each day and each act to life and my donor.

Each life saved or improved is really a ripple, for every act the beneficiary makes influences others who influence more and more.

I am a teacher and there is no better place I could be to make many big differences.

Please, do four things for me

  1. Sign your organ and tissue donation card and talk to your family about your wishes.
  2. Take care of your health. Eat well, exercise well, avoid illicit drugs, alcohol, tobacco and salt and build your personal and professional networks. Love. Care. Help.
  3. Let me know if this post moved you. I agonized over it for a long time; it feels like months since I attended the celebration last week. I hope I did not lose your respect.
  4. And finally spread the word. It is important, and I nearly forgot.

Oh, and just in case I have not said it enough, thank you, donor. You gave me a second life and I am trying to use it well. I am dearly sorry that you had to die before I could begin again. May God bless you, your family and your friends. May their memories of you be fond and their thoughts of me be kind and proud. I may not be able to donate any organs, tissues or blood anymore, but I did sign my organ and tissue card before I needed your help and I try to do well by those I meet, placing their needs (though not necessarily their wants) ahead of my own. (Okay, sometimes I treat myself too.) Thank you for giving me your life. I wish I could give something to you.



More information

I wrote another post about my transplant in response to a post from Malyn Mawby, who read this post.

Images of the Guru Nanak Dev Healing Garden

The Mazankowski Heart Institute

Tissue and Organ Donation

25 Years of Heart and Lung Transplants in Alberta

Personal Stories, Advocacy and Efforts

Dilated Cardiomyopathy

When Education Becomes Punishment



Shawn, the Dictator

Last week, I had to do the worse thing I think a teacher could do. I was subbing for one teacher, and marking during one of her Prep periods, when the school principal asked me to babysit, and I use the word literally, a Junior High class that had been misbehaving the previous period. (And no, I don’t know what they were doing.) So, I had to babysit them, and they had to read, something none of them wanted to do, particularly since they were being kept from gym.

Neither the students nor I were happy about the arrangement. They were distressed because they were missing gym and I was distressed because reading was their punishment. Most of them refused to read, which just made my job harder and more distasteful. Because of their reluctance and regular teacher and principal checks, I had to actively enforce the reading punishment order. (And the definition of dictator is … Mr. Urban?)

Really? Reading as punishment? My hands are gyrating in the air even as I type this. Punishment? What?

Some Disturbing Facts



Here, I should present some background information.

First, in Alberta, it is estimated that 40% of the adult population (16yr+) is functionally illiterate. This of course doesn’t mean that these adults cannot read and write. But it does mean that they have difficulty functionally comprehending and using what they are reading and its implications. That statistic is very sobering. And I know the problem is not due to the lack of quality teaching.

Second, I am relatively new at teaching, and have been out of a K-12 classroom for … well, let me use the word decades. I don’t remember whether students my age, when they were in K-12, hated reading. I suspect some did, but most, like me, enjoyed it. By their own admission most of the students I teach today do not like reading, ever, at all. And using reading as a punishment does not build eager readers.

Third, contrary to my students, I love reading, a lot. I have been reading for enjoyment for as long as I can remember. I started “seriously” reading when my grade six teacher read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to my class. Of course, I read since I was a toddler and some of my favorite writing themes I can trace back to these early times. My careers, ecology and teaching, rely heavily on reading. So, reading is not just enjoyable, it is practical. (Interesting, how I am reduced to defending reading here.)




So, I am left with contradictions. To me, reading is a life-growing activity. One can not lose by learning to read and to enjoy reading. Yet, my students dislike it. Worse yet, reading is used as a punishment for them. (Actually, it is probably just used as a filler while they are being punished, but it is still being forced on them and they associate it with their punishment.) Finally, I, someone who celebrates reading and desires to pass that celebration to my students, am required to ensure the punished students are reading while I babysit them.

I don’t think anyone wins in this situation. And I worry the loss could be life-long. I personally hate being the enforcer of this punishment, for it accomplishes exactly the opposite of what I hoped to give to my students. I worry that I stole something very precious from my students, something that they will never get back.

I wonder. Has anyone had to deal with a similar situation? If you have, what did you do? If you haven’t, what would you do?