A Pleasant Surprise
By Conor Gillis
For as long as I can remember, I have despised the subject of english. I justified my affliction for the course by blaming all of my difficulties upon it. As a young student, reading and writing was not appealing, nor did it come naturally. English took the role of an antagonist in my school life, where the science and math courses were a protagonist. I describe myself as a realist, who enjoys solving problems with finite solutions. English seemed to have completely adverse attributes compared to the maths and science subjects that I was so fond of. My early opinions were formed in my elementary days and seemed to repel me from the subject for my entire school career. High school english proved the most repulsive of them all. Every assignment was unclear, the learning approaches and the books we read felt dull. Every year seemed to be completely derived from the previous year.
The thought that I was going to receive any satisfaction from grade 12 english did not cross my mind during the anticipation of my upcoming move to Ottawa. I assumed that the courses and teachers would be unmistakably identical and that it was once again, going to be the most dreaded part of my day. I’m sure having a closed minded attitude towards the course prevented me from enjoying it to its fullest potential. However, I felt that if I had disliked it for the past eleven years, I was most likely going to keep the same attitude for the 12th year.
I started my grade 12 year at a high school called Glebe. On the surface, it was a carbon copy of the high school that I had previously attended in Winnipeg. There was more than 1400 kids, the school was more than 100 years old, the classes were overcrowded and the teachers gave little to no personal assistance. From my first day at the school, I could tell I was going to be miserable there. Stress quickly kicked in after that realization and I became overwhelmed. My goal for a number of years has been to be accepted into an Irish medical program in 2017, straight out of high school. In order for me to achieve that, I must obtain very high grades and participate in a lot of extra curricular activities. Being in a school like Glebe, I felt like just another face. I was getting lost in the material and my confidence in my own capabilities was lowered as a result. I knew after three days that Glebe was not the school for me or my ambitions. Once I became conscious of that, I was faced with an ultimatum; either enroll into a private school in Ottawa or move back to Winnipeg and finish the year at the school that I had previously attended.
After a quick Friday morning “google” search, my mother had concluded that Cedar Ridge High School was the only feasible option for me. It was a half an hour drive from our house and it had about eighteen students so it was basically a polar opposite to the school I had spent my previous three years of attending. I ignored all of the surface problems like social limitations that I had been informed of prior to my visit and went to look at the school that Friday afternoon. We arrived and were immediately greeted by the principal. She’s a wonderful woman named Michelle and she proceeded to give me a completely honest overview of the school and all that it had to offer. I was given all the good and not so positive qualities of the School and Michelle answered any and all questions I had. She then took me to meet the class and in that moment, the school really became appealing to me. I walked into the small classroom and I felt that I was in a state of shock. Everyone was pretty much silent until I was introduced to the head english educator, Shauna Pollock. Now her first words to me were ones that will probably stick with me for my entire life because they were so unexpected. As she approached, I assumed she was going to talk to me about her teaching approach and how she analyzes pieces of literature. No, she took one look at me and said to the one other male grade 12 student, Mat, “looks like you have some competition for prom king.” I knew right there and then that I was going to get along with this teacher. I decided soon thereafter that I was going to give Cedar Ridge a try.
My first day at the school was probably the most obscure one imaginable. I arrived at the school, having never spent a full day there before and was immediately prompted to board a bus. That bus was heading to a summer camp called Red Pine that we were to live at for the following three days. I had no idea what to expect but I was thankful that everyone was very welcoming and nice. Upon arriving at Red Pine, I started to get a little more comfortable. We proceeded to participate in a variety of leadership and communication games throughout our stay. The activities forced me out of my comfort zone and got me very comfortable with my fellow classmates. Since I am one the oldest students that attends Cedar Ridge, I found myself in a leadership position several times during our team games. My objective was to not only give everyone the chance to share their own ideas, but to also encourage every member of the group to listen and have effective communication using clear and concise feedback that would prove to be constructive. I have a lot of experience with leadership from the team sports I have played throughout my life but 21st Century Literacy really refined my skills. I found that in that short three day period, I was much more open to the idea of a variety of ages working together in harmony. Closing the age gap that had been defined to me by traditional high school has allowed me to be a more comfortable and capable leader regardless of the idea that certain people of certain ages must only interact with each other. I still feel that there is room for me to improve when it comes to keeping a group focused on task for a majority of our working time. I feel that the emphasis that Cedar Ridge has on interaction and developing great leaders will assist me to improve on every aspect of leading and managing.
The last thing I expected out of a trip to Red Pine Camp was to improve my writing ability. After our first day at the camp, Shauna instructed us to fill out a small reflection on what we had done during our first day. Mine was written with a quality of work that could only be described as mediocre. My responses seemed as though I filled out them out using a basic template and that format obviously was not up to par because I was promptly informed by Shuana that my style was not exceeding her expectations. I instantly worked on improving my writing style and craft to better describe my narrating voice. The feedback that I have received in this class has encouraged me to be significantly more articulate when it comes to my vocabulary and sentence formation. This feedback has further reinforced me to continue developing these skills and encouraged me to develop my voice in my presentations and assignments.
Upon arriving back at Cedar Ridge High School after what can only be described as the most peculiar first week of school at Red Pine Camp, we started analyzing the works of a true artist; Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip. The song that was chosen for our initial exposure to the band was The Hip classic, Wheat Kings. The song told the tragic injustice that was dealt to David Milgaard. He served around twenty years for a crime that he didn’t commit. We then identified several poetic devices in the song like imagery and allusion. We learned the reason behind their implementation and why they were so effective. What then followed was the first glimpse of the immense individuality that 21st Century Literacy encourages in its assignments. We were tasked with choosing a song by Gord Downie and creating a presentation using whatever strategy that appealed to us. I was intrigued by the idea of a self directed project because I had never been given the chance at individuality in public school and was eager to attempt it.
I began to listen to multiple Tragically Hip songs until I found one with an appealing sound and a compelling meaning. After a couple days, I decided on Fiddler’s Green. It told the story of Gord Downie’s nephew who died from a heart ailment. I found the meaning of this song so emotionally compelling because loss is a hard topic to write about and the difficulty is endlessly amplified when you have to showcase those emotions in front of hundreds of thousands of people. The process of analyzing each section made me feel monumental empathy for Downie’s loss, but it gave me the chance to see the optimism in his heart and the love that he had for his nephew.
However, I feel that my individuality from my song choice didn't exactly carry over to my presentation method. I chose a somewhat standard slideshow but I feel that my analysis of the song and its massive variety of poetic devices made up for any shortcomings in my creativeness. As is normal, the nerves that arose from public speaking impaired my ability to properly convey the powerful meaning of the song. I decided to attempt different modes of presentations for future assignments. Alternative deliveries set me apart from the crowd, especially in our ethics presentations, because the uniqueness was engaging. With the more presentations we attempted, the progressively more comfortable I have felt. The course has taught me the importance of practice, concise speech and proper distribution of attention around a room. All these skills are great but your presentation must have an engaging and interactive aspect to it as well. I now spend a large amount of time when planning my projects and presentations thinking of new ways to differentiate myself from the crowd. This allows the audience to take more satisfaction from my delivery and have my points prominently resonate with them. That is a skill that I am incredibly grateful to have obtained in my time here.
We quickly switched our focus from Gord to Gordon. By Gordon, I’m referring to Charlie Gordon; the main character of the novel, Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes. I was a bit biased upon the initial study of the book because I had read and studied it previously in grade 10. My preconceived notions that the novel was too long and uneventful were quickly abolished by the innovative approach that we took to studying the content of the story. We solidified our understanding of textual ideas by actually forming groups and discussing the book after reading increments of it. I cannot stress the importance of the group discussions. They provided me with an extremely enjoyable strategy to fully understand the entire story and the complex messages in the text. I had never previously realized the importance of Plato’s Allegory of The Cave until we analysed it and every reference to it in our discussions. In addition, we also studied the film interpretation titled Charly. We were given the opportunity to watch the movie and analyse the similarities/differences between it and the novel. We got to see if and how they implemented our favourite aspects and ideas from the novel and the level of depth they took to them as well. I took a lot from this activity and the experience taught me the importance of reading the book after watching the movie. Many things are often left out due to time constraints in film adaptations and the book tells the true and whole experience and can even effectively give first person perspectives. My level of comprehension of the book was so greatly increased by the approach that we took to the study of its various meanings that I will try to incorporate similar strategies in future activities.
The final assignment for our Flowers For Algernon topic couldn’t have been more fitting. We were tasked to tell a segment of the story from the perspective of another character. I immediately asked myself, what I could do to set myself apart from the crowd and choose a character that totally displays my individuality? I chose a character who played a brief, yet powerful role; Mr. Winslow. He was the head of Warren State Home for the mentally challenged. He grilled Charlie for not being understanding of people with mental disabilities, while being blind to the fact that Charlie was in fact a person that had overcome a disability himself. I took my experience with word processing and formatting from my previous blog announcement letter and made an apology letter from Mr. Winslow to Charlie. I reflected upon the scene where Mr. Winslow vocally showed his frustration with Charlie and displayed those emotions in my written representation of him. I exhibited Mr. Winslow’s full journey from extreme exasperation, to confusion and to eventual atonement. I was curious of the impact that I could make with a character with such a concise rule but the skills that I learned from 21st Century Literacy allowed me to make the sense of him substantially more impactful.
All in all, this was a year of immense development for me as a writer and student. I felt that for the first time ever, I was fully organized. I could feel in control of all my responsibilities, even at the most stressful of times like towards the end of the term where we had several major assignments due. My self regulation skills were heavily used during these times and they assisted me greatly with feeling in control and keeping my tasks organized. After completing the course, I feel that I am fully competent in creating things such as forms, spreadsheets and doing a variety of word processing. Our design sprint activity also has made me feel fully capable in project management and innovation. An approach was even formulated which proved to be extremely effective and something that I will try to remember for my future endeavors. It began with a very important, yet commonly overlooked, step; empathy. We learned that in order to properly identify a problem and solution, you must understand what the affected user is facing. That was a perfect segway into the defining stage of the process. We could then ideate regarding possible solutions to our defined problem without logistical barriers in order to reduce all limitations on our minds. The following steps, prototyping and testing, were left out of the sprint because of lack of resources but I will definitely attempt those steps in my future endeavors. We were in a variety of groups during this activity as well which provided excellent practice for our communication skills. A lot of our conversations were on a slim time limit and that allowed us to understand how to properly pitch an idea while being concise and clear.
21st Century Literacy provides a learning experience like no other. Every school seems to have followed the same format for the past 100 years. As a result, that has created a surplus of young adults entering the work field with already outdated knowledge. 21st Century Literacy, in addition to a learning environment like Cedar Ridge, allows individuality to flourish. They heavily emphasize all types of creativity because all the educators know how invaluable it is in the workplace. There is no such thing as teaching a fish to climb a tree at Cedar Ridge High School like there is in a traditional high school. Everyone’s needs are always catered to individually and the constant personal interaction prevents students from ever getting lost in content. I cannot put enough emphasis on implementing courses like 21st Century Literacy nation wide. Having a course that is applicable in our future life and careers makes it very compelling to learn. While so many schools try to exclusively attempt to teach the past; 21st Century Literacy focuses on the future because that’s the world we are live in. I am fully convinced that 21st Century Literacy is the most effective course of its kind and I only wish that all educators would teach in the amazing way that Shauna Pollock did this year.