A heartwarming card

Drs. Frank Sottile and Sarah Witherspoon, while on sabbatical at U of T, brought their son Sam to the Abelard School.  We were very touched to receive this card from them, as the year comes to a close.  We will miss Sam, and wish him well as he returns home!Sottile's Card


Joseph Sproule’s 20th Reunion Speech

At Abelard’s 20th Reunion celebration on May 26, 2017, our alumnus Joseph Sproule gave a touching and eloquent speech — he generously agreed to share it on our blog:


Good evening, everyone. It is with great pleasure that I join you all today to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Abelard School.

I had the good fortune to attend Abelard in its first three years, a formative era that may be thought of as a kind of Abelardian Paleozoic, during which the school emerged like some glistening scholastic tetrapod from the steaming jungles and verdant swamps of the late 1990s. Some of you will remember those days well; while others were still young tykes, as yet unaware that you would one day tread the halls of our beloved school. Either way, whether by means of memory or imagination, I ask that you now cast your minds back through the mists of time to the hazy summer of 1997…

Allow me to set the scene: The first Harry Potter novel has just been published; Backstreet’s Back is the number one album in the world; Titanic is pulling in billions at the box office; and, in an old bank building across from an abandoned train station at Yonge and Summerhill, four teachers are in the process of opening a new school.

Who are these intrepid educators? None other, of course, than Abelard’s founders – Michelle Lefolii, Alina Rossinsky, Shai Maharaj, and Brian Blair – a potent pedagogical quadrumvirate brought together by shared vision and a passion for teaching. That vision and passion – as well as a great deal of hard work and dedication over the subsequent two decades – has borne rich fruit: the hundreds of students who have benefitted from Abelard’s unique approach to education; the community that has grown up around the school; and, of course, the Abelard School itself, which continues to go from strength to strength.

But permit me to speak for a moment, not of the Abelard of today – a school coming into its maturity with an established reputation for excellence and a burgeoning legion of alumni – but of those early years at Yonge and Summerhill. It was a time of new beginnings, of infectious imagination, dynamism, and energy. The shape of the school was still being moulded into its now familiar form, as teachers and students came together to participate in a wonderful academic experiment. But, even then, it was already so very Abelardian: brilliant, fun, challenging, and, let’s be honest, at times more than a little bit quirky. Whether reading French literature, learning the functions of the organelles, translating Attic Greek, or playing cards at the picnic table in the school parking lot, I remember there being a vibrant energy in the air. It was more than just the excitement of attending a new institution; it was the sense that we were taking part in the creation of a new community, bearing witness to an idea being transformed by inspired teachers and enthusiastic students into a reality.

Over the years, that idea has taken on a life of its own, and there have been many twists and turns in the Abelard story. Staff and students have come and gone; the school has moved location twice and will soon do so again; new courses have been offered and curricula have changed. But Abelard has remained Abelard, strengthened and sustained by a network of past and present teachers, students, board members, parents, and other friends of the school. The spark that was lit in the summer of 1997 has grown into a sacred flame, lovingly tended for the past two decades by an ever-growing number of people with ties the school. Indeed, one could argue that those people are the school, and the friendship and support that we offer one another is one of Abelard’s most precious legacies. The Abelard School’s gift to its alumni is therefore much more than a rich education and a rigorous intellectual preparation for later life; it is also the circle of friends with whom we continue on our journey long after our high school years are behind us.

Today, seventeen years after I graduated, I still feel as much an Abelardian as ever. I sit on the school’s board, rarely miss an alumni event, and keep in regular touch with my many high school friends. I also feel connected to the school in less tangible but equally important ways. As a doctoral candidate here at the University of Toronto, I’m constantly aware of Abelard’s lingering influence on both my conduct as a student and as a teacher – indeed, on my approach to learning and my attitude to life more broadly. It is a reminder that the Abelardian education not only imparts information but also fosters a truly scholarly ethos – a lifelong commitment to intellectual curiosity – both to seeking knowledge and to sharing it and using it for good. I am certain that in all of your varied and multifaceted lives, you too can identify threads that link you back to Abelard in one way or another.

I would therefore like to finish with an expression of thanks: to the school’s founders for making their dream a reality that has blessed us all; and to the many teachers, alumni, administrators, and friends whose unwavering dedication has strengthened and enriched the school over the years. As the Abelard School prepares to enter a new era in its expanded Church Street premises, I think there is good reason for confidence; the past twenty years have seen the school’s roots grow deep and its foundations strong; and the ongoing support of the Abelard community will no doubt ensure that the school continues to reach ever greater heights in the years to come.

The Extended Community

If you read the promotional materials for smaller schools, you’ll see things like personalized learning and small class sizes listed among the advantages of attending academies like ours. While these are absolutely important considerations for people looking into a school, we like our small classes because our tight-knit educational environment allows us to foster relationships that form a much larger extended community. We recently spoke with some of our alumni who still frequent Abelard as volunteer tutors to find out why they keep coming back to our school. For them, it seems, it is all about the relationships too.

Noa Magen, a 2015 alumna who now studies Cognitive Science at the University of Toronto, tutors French at Abelard. She says that Mr. Blair’s philosophy class inspired her interest in how we know things, and that he is a big reason that she is in her current field of study. She is tutoring French in part to keep up skills and in part because it feels nice to help the next generation; she knows how rigorous the Abelard program can be–she recounts having already read most of the books assigned in her first-year university literature courses in our grade 10 English class–and is happy to pay forward the support she received while a student here.

Samantha Odrowaz-Sekely, another 2015 alumna now studying History at U of T, also tutors French at Abelard. She echoes Noa’s feelings about the kind of support she received at our school. In addition to gaining a lot from Abelard’s advanced curriculum, she says that her teachers knew her well enough to recommend books and extension opportunities that suited her interests specifically. She continues to visit Abelard as a tutor because she likes to help and, like Noa, she wants to keep up her skills. She has also found that investing in interpersonal relationships has resulted in new opportunities: Mr. Young invites Sam back to helm two of his history classes each year.

A 2016 graduate, Maxim Vorobyov visits us regularly as a math tutor. Unlike Sam and Noa who attended Abelard for grades 9-12, Maxim joined us halfway through his highschool journey in grade 11. He likes tutoring math because it keeps him connected with the foundational skills that he still uses in University, and equally because he doesn’t want to lose touch with the school. One of the things that most stands out for him about his Abelard experience is that he, like Sam, felt heard by his teachers. Dissenting opinions, as long as they were well researched and well articulated, were treated with respect.

We love hearing from and working with our alumni. Particularly now, as we celebrate the school’s 20th anniversary, it is extremely valuable to us that we celebrate the the connections that make up the extended Abelard community.

On Computer-Free Classrooms

Computers today are everywhere, and it is understandable that many students and their parents feel with some urgency that technology needs to be part of the classroom. At Abelard, we do believe that technology has a place (in our computer science class, for one), but we continue to resist allowing students to use technology in most classes for several very important reasons.

At a practical level, when students’ use of technology is not being structured by a teacher’s assignment and supervision, it can be distracting. Although we certainly see students preoccupied by phones every once in a while at Abelard, it isn’t only our observation that makes us wary of the free-for-all use of computers. A study published last summer in the journal Labour Economics looked at how unstructured technology use impacted test scores and found that, “highly multipurpose technology, such as mobile phones, can have a negative impact on productivity through distraction” (Beland and Murphy). This distraction, they found, was reflected in poorer results on test scores across all grades. A distracted student is less successful.

Further, and perhaps even more importantly, our focus at Abelard is University preparation. At the core of University studies is the ability to think deeply and critically, and there is evidence that students who take notes by hand develop these skills better than those who use computers for note-taking. In a paper published in Psychological Science, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer study whether digital note-takers perform better than their long-handed counterparts and unequivocally land on the side of students who take notes by hand. Their primary observation is that computers facilitate a verbatim transcription of notes, while people who take notes by hand organically synthesize and summarize ideas. This in-situ mental processing develops precisely the critical thinking tools that our students will rely on in University.

There are further reasons for limiting technology use in the classroom that have to do with social development, learning focus and attention, and improved work ethic, but for us these are secondary to the measurable beneficial effects of an old-fashioned classroom on our students’ success both at Abelard and in the future.

Works Cited

Beland, Louis-Philippe and Richard Murphy. “Ill Communication: Technology, Distraction & Student Performance.” Labour Economics, Vol.41, 2016, pp. 61-76.

Mueller, Pam A. and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. “The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Note Taking.” Psychological Science, Vol. 25, No. 6, 2014.

The Model UN Trip – A Student’s Perspective

We asked one of our grade 12 students to share her account of the school’s trip to participate in the Model UN. This is Lili Coelho’s story.


Last month, a group of Abelard’s politics students traveled to New York City for a three-day model UN conference. It was a short yet hectic trip; every moment was occupied, and the pace never slowed. It was something that many people never have the opportunity to experience, and as a grade 12 student, I’m infinitely glad that I did.

Our trip began with a bumpy morning flight and a day of sightseeing. While I had been to New York before, I’d never spent much time in the city—full of iconic landmarks and vibrant activity, it was quite spectacular. We walked through Times Square to Strand Bookstore, then to Greenwich village for a cozy Italian dinner. Our group spent the first day together, enjoying each other’s company, before we were launched into the conference proper. It was truly a great way to begin the trip—surrounded by friends, enjoying the sights.

We visited the Natural History Museum on the morning of our second day. I think I speak on behalf of everyone when I say that the dinosaur skeletons and the habitat displays made us feel like kids again, fascinated by the natural world. It was a snowy day on the Upper West Side, but after the museum we leisurely strolled back to the Hilton, discovering shopping centers and incredible cafés along the way. Back at the hotel, it was finally time to prepare for the opening ceremonies at the United Nations Headquarters itself—we put on our best clothes and made our way out.

I wasn’t anticipating a wait of over an hour in below-zero temperatures, but that’s what we got. Airport-level security slowed the line down to a crawl, and we ended up huddled together for warmth beneath the unforgiving wind by the time it was our turn to enter. No matter how painful the wait was, though, it was worth it. As I walked through the halls of the UN to the General Assembly, all I was wondering was “whose footsteps am I following?”

The General Assembly itself was more grandiose than the pictures had made it seem. While we all wished that we could have had the closing ceremonies there so we could actually vote on resolutions, I think being there really got us all into the Model UN mindset. The keynote speaker was polarizing, so I won’t elaborate on that—but it was incredible just to be there.

That night, the conference finally began. The first committee session was a haze of networking, note-writing, and figuring out how everything worked. I think a lot of us felt out of place—many of the American schools in attendance had been to multiple other conferences in the past few months, and we had to pick up a lot of knowledge as we went along. However, over the course of the session I became not only more comfortable, but confident enough in my position on the issue being discussed to go up and speak in front of approximately three hundred people—as someone who has always been extremely anxious in public speaking situations, that was huge for me. The session lasted until midnight, and my partner and I left feeling satisfied and excited for the next day.

I think that, over the course of four more sessions, we all surprised ourselves. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to hear any of my classmates (apart from Randa, my committee partner) speak in their respective committees, and the next few days were so hectic that there was barely time to talk to each other. I went up to speak a

few more times, and we ended up writing an entire clause in the working paper that eventually became a resolution. Randa and I made friends and we made enemies as we became more involved in the process than we ever thought we would be. At the end of committee sessions, when our resolution passed, we were exhausted, but happy and satisfied with what we had accomplished.

On our final night, most of us ended up leaving the Delegate Dance (which was far from an Abelard-style party) to spend some quality time together in one of the hotel rooms. We shared our experiences from the conference and reflected on them. While we all accomplished different things in our committees, all of us enjoyed the experience.

Our final day was much like our first. After the closing ceremonies, we visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then walked around the city for the final hour before driving back to the airport. And that was the end of the trip.

Overall, I’m incredibly glad to have participated in NHSMUN. Those of us who went are, of course, extremely grateful to Mr. Blair and Mme. Rossinsky, without whom the trip wouldn’t have been possible. It’s strange to think that in just a couple months, I’ll have graduated—the end of an era is approaching. It’s experiences like this that’ll make me remember my last year of high school fondly years down the road. Thank you to everyone who made it possible.

Mr. Young Talks AP Exams

Some of our senior students are in the final leg of their prep for writing the Advanced Placement (or AP) Exams in early May. Abelard is an AP exam centre, and we are proud of our students’ track records on these competitive placement tests. Advanced Placement exams are administered by the College Board, the same organization that runs the SATs, and can be an important part of the Abelardian experience.

Our students should seriously weigh the value of writing these exams. Some European post-secondary institutions, particularly in the UK and Germany, require five AP test scores from applicants. Many universities in North America consider strong results on AP tests as equivalent to first-year courses. This means that, at some schools, students can either skip to second-year classes, leaving more space in their programs for electives, or they can use AP exams to fulfill program breadth requirements. Students who achieve a score of 5 (the highest mark possible) on at least five exams are recognized by the College Board for their accomplishment–a feather in the cap of any high school graduate.

Although there are many disciplines tested by AP exams, our students most frequently write the Calculus, English, French, American History, Psychology, Biology, Physics, and Latin tests. The exams are difficult and shouldn’t be attempted without preparation–both a 90% average in a grade 12 course along with approval from their teacher are usually a good indication that the student is up to the challenge. Students should start thinking about whether or not they would like to write the tests while they are still in grade 9, and can begin preparation as early as grade 10.

While we do insist on at-home study to get ready for these daunting tests, our grade 12 level courses cover much of the curriculum that is on AP exams. Students electing to write should feel well supported in their efforts. Mr. Young coordinates our students’ participation in the APs, so students should speak with him to express their interest. The exams cost around $150 each to write depending on the value of the Canadian dollar at the time of payment. Most students who take on this challenge will write three exams while in grade 11, and another three while in grade 12.

All this said, the AP exams are not required, and may not be the best fit for all students. Those who are interested in applying at schools in the United States, for instance, may find that an SAT or ACT is needed for admission. Whatever path our students choose, we are deeply invested in preparing our them for their best future. Students and parents should speak with us early and often about how we can help them excel.

A New Home for Abelard

We are thrilled to share the news that Abelard has a new home! At the end of this scholarly year we will bid adieu to our College Street location and take up residence in a very safe neighbourhood on the fourth floor of 557 Church Street. Strategically placed in between the University of Toronto and Ryerson, within a short walk of the Yonge/Bloor subway stop, and with dedicated bike lanes leading right to us on Bloor and Wellesley, we are going to be more accessible than ever. In September 2017, our classes will convene there.

There are a lot of reasons to be excited about the move. As now, Abelard will occupy the entire floor of the building, but our new school is more spacious and has more natural light. Before we take occupancy in August, we are having renovations done to carve out the exact facilities that we need. Students can expect a science lab that is as well equipped as in our current building, but with dedicated plumbing which will allow for more experimentation. Art students will work in a more spacious room. We will have a bigger assembly hall, and the students will have their own lunch room with a kitchen. There are excellent options for students who choose to purchase a lunch in the neighbourhood, including a large Hasty Market on the main floor of our new building.

We hope that you are as enthusiastic as we are. Parents will have a chance to check out the new facilities at their orientation night early in the fall. Alumni are always welcome to stop by for a visit; we hope to see many familiar faces starting in September. Until then, we’ll do our best to keep you up-to-date here!

The Model UN Trip

A group of our senior students recently visited NYC to represent Iceland at the Model United Nations. We are so proud of all the hard work they put into their preparation and for their ‘model’ efforts at the event! We’ll be sharing some students’ accounts of the trip in the next few weeks. Until then, here are some photos from the trip!

Getting Playful

Every year our drama class collaborates on the production of a show. This year we’re thrilled to be staging three one-act-plays: Charlie by Slawomir Mrozek, The Still Alarm by George S. Kaufman, and The Zoo Story by Edward Albee. Together these are funny plays that explore the ephemerality of life, our obligations to others, and the importance of being attentive to the world around us.

George S. Kaufman wrote The Still Alarm in 1925. It is an oddly prescient piece which the class has likened to a popular meme of a cartoon dog sitting complacently in a room on fire. In it, two businessmen are concluding a visit at a hotel when the bellboy arrives to announce that the hotel has erupted in flame. Rather than run to the nearest exit, they take the news in stride and continue to languish in the room. They note coolly that the floor is alarmingly warm and that a crowd has gathered outside the building. When the firemen arrive, the businessmen continue on as though they were hosting visitors. As flames consume the room, one of the firemen pulls out a violin and plays a tune while the play ends.

Charlie was written in 1978 by Polish playwright Slawomir Mrozek. At the time of its writing, Poland was still behind the iron curtain; there is considerable evidence that Mrozek hid pointed critiques of his government in his surrealist and sometimes grotesque plays. Charlie is no different. In it, we see a young man bringing his grandfather to see an optometrist. Grandpa is on a mission to shoot a person called Charlie and needs new glasses so that he can identify his enemy. As the play progresses we discover that Charlie can be just about anyone, and Grandpa–freshly equipped with glasses–is quick to label the optometrist as his target. Fearing for his life, the optometrist hastily finds a new Charlie to place in front of Grandpa’s gun. His target dispatched, Grandpa and his Grandson leave the office but promise to come back the following day to shoot again. In its dark humour this text questions where the line is drawn between the individual and the ‘common good,’ while demonstrating how fanaticism slips easily into repression and terrorism.

The Zoo Story is Edward Albee’s first play. It was written in 1958 and is still regularly produced. The play tells the story of two men who meet on a bench in New York City’s Central Park. Peter is a businessman with a family and nice home, and Jerry is a drifter who is desperate for a meaningful conversation. Through a series of provocations, Jerry gets Peter talking about life and its value and manages to shake Peter out of his complacency with a surprise twist ending.

We hope that you’ll join us the evening of May 19th at the Palmerston Library Theatre to see the fruits of all our hard work! Please be in touch with the school for details about tickets.