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:

Joseph

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.

Athletics at Abelard

We wrapped up February with a school trip to Mount St. Louis Moonstone, a ski resort just North of Barrie. Many of our students are accomplished skiers, but even novices were confidently completing runs by the time we left the slopes. While athletics are not a major focus at Abelard, we do value and applaud students’ sporting efforts. Health Canada recommends that high school students get 60 minutes of daily physical activity, but reports that only one in eight actually get the exercise they need (Picard).

We recently sat down with some of the school’s more ambitious athletes to get a sense of why they dedicate so much of their ‘down’ time to exercise, and how they balance the rigours of an Abelard education with hours of extra-curricular training. Lavan Balendran is an avid runner and keen swimmer, while Carmina Cornacchia is a competitive swimmer who is up and training most mornings before many of her classmates are even awake. Elias Zaarour, now in his last year at Abelard, has recently transitioned from being a nationally-ranked speed skater to a crossfit athlete. Emma Adamson-DeLuca and Milena Loginova are both avid ballet dancers who train several evenings a week and most Saturdays. Roberta Vakruchev pursues several sports, and Jackson Levine is into competitive Olympic weight lifting.

When asked why they do what they do, the overwhelming consensus was that time spent exercising helped relieve stress and achieve a sense of personal balance. Carmina, Lavan, and Roberta, in particular, reported feeling focused and in-the-moment when pursuing their sport of choice; while training, their everyday worries were put aside because the physical activity demanded their full attention. Our athletes also reflected on the sense of accomplishment they feel when they achieve a goal, whether that ambition is beating a personal best or getting through the next class or training session. Milena noted that even though she only started dancing a few years ago, every newly acquired skill pushes her to keep going. Although it might seem counterintuitive, our athletes all also agreed that the time they dedicated to training ultimately helped their academic performance. Emma explained that with a limited number of hours to accomplish school work, she is less inclined to procrastinate and so is readily able to complete her assignments. Elias and Jackson spoke at length about how competitive sport taught them how to set goals and how to productively deal with failure.

There is considerable research that backs up what our students report – in addition to gains in physical health, regular exercise helps reduce stress and improve mental health as well (“Physical Activity”). As the weather turns and we return to warmer and longer days, we should all be looking for ways to get a little more exercise.

Works Cited:

“Physical Activity.” Health Canada. http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/physactiv/index-eng.php

Picard, Andrew. “Only 1 in 8 Canadian kids get enough exercise, report says.” The Globe and Mail. 23 August 2012. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/only-1-in-8-canadian-kids-get-enough-exercise-report-says/article4189297/

Self-Portraits from Junior Art

Like the great artists of history, some of our junior artists have been practicing self-portraiture. It takes a keen eye, steady hand, and creative mind to achieve results like these!

Moments

by Anna Nabutovsky
excerpt from final project for EWC4U, The Writer’s Craft

Tears:

And I wept. The tears fell onto the canvas one by one, creating puddles on the bright display. And I hoped they would wash away the paint, leaving the canvas blank, fresh, clean, and ready to begin anew. And I wept, watching the tears fall onto the canvas not clearing a thing away but rather smudging the paint, leaving it a blurry, murky mess. And I sighed, knowing that tears would do me no good. So I took out my finest brush and my darkest shade of red, and painted over the canvas, covering the shameful blur with a powerful, deep, seeping, all consuming red.

Emptiness:

In the iridescent glow of the moonlight
In the outline of a palm on the glass
In the flickering of lights
In the moment of passion
There was beauty

In the fantasies you had
In the dreams that were not realized
In the sleepless nights
In what could have been
There was hope

In the days spent without care
In the sound of your laughter
In the lecherous thoughts
In the treacherous moments
There was desire

But when the flame burns out
When reality collides with vision
When you stand before me as you are
And I stand before you as I am
Nothing left unseen
And nothing left unspoken
There is emptiness.

Anger:

The moment was red. Thrashing wildly against the restraints of reason, tugging at the chains of social order, and entirely rid of the emotional consciousness which plagues day to day interactions. From tense voices to piercing screams in an instant. The shatter of wedding china, ceramics shredding into fine pieces, impossible to fix, broken apart for good. And then silence, the red fades to white. White hot rage, broken away from passion, fading to indifference.

Betrayal:

The beginning of a day
The coy playfulness of a wink
The excitement of risk
The treacherous sound of your heart beating

A moment of desire
A ballet of silhouettes
A soft whisper
A silky strand of hair

The movement of one hand
The cry of pain
The sound of water running
The ending of a story which never began.

Loneliness:

Four borders, fading at the edges. I look down. She sits alone on a rocking chair draped with a wool blanket. The room is small, poorly lit, with only a faint glow which casts menacing shadows. She is old, but more frail than befits her age, so frail in fact, that she blends seamlessly into her surroundings, becoming one with the battered, dusty furniture. A Persian rug is strewn across the floor, not exactly carelessly, just haphazardly. She looks up suddenly from her trembling hands, and we see her eyes. Vividly expressive. Now watery, but once a bright blue, filled with a zest for life. The room grows darker, as the wax drips from the lone candle in the corner. She looks down, with a half defeated sorrowful glance, and begins to rock in the chair. The candle in the corner drips again, creating a stain on the rustic wooden table, which shakes slightly. She looks up again, her thin lips twist into a half scowl which evokes more pity than fear. Her bony fingers reach for her cane, she trembles slightly, unable to grasp it, and gives up with a defeated sigh. Her eyes fall onto a photograph which hangs above the torn sofa. It is a mustard yellow colour from age, but that gives it a quaint sort of charm. It depicts a smiling young woman. Bright blue eyes. Her hair waves in the wind in an elaborate adage. There is much innocence in her gaze, a smirk plays on her lips, which shows that she has not yet shed all the layers of youthful conceit. Yet, she is a worldly sort of beauty. A becoming young man stands in a wool coat by her side. His blonde hair is covered with snow. He looks at her, not at the camera. She lowers her gaze from the photo. A single tear slides down her face. Not just nostalgia: regret. She shifts her gaze again, and looks out the lone window. It is already April, yet winter refuses to leave. There is something beautiful about the plush white carpet and black still night. They call forth memories of laugher, and fireplaces. It is too late for that now. It is springtime. Yet the snow persists, refusing to leave the past and make room for the future. The moonlight gives the still landscape an ethereal glow. She sees two men pass by, both wearing large spectacles and wool coats. They pass with a sense of impending purpose, yet simultaneously a cavalier air follows them. They don’t seem to notice the stars or the moonlight. She is glad when they pass, their briefcases sully the beauty of the night. I hold her gaze for a second longer. She is fading away at the edges. The picture crumples, and falls to the ground.

Belonging:

I dip my brush into the paint, watching each stroke find a home nestled amongst the others. The paint dries quickly in the blazing heat. I wipe my brow to stop the sweat from dripping into my eye. Alongside me the others work chirping away in a flurry of merriment. The giddiness twirls around me, engulfing me into its welcoming embrace, begging me to join if only for a second. Yet, for some reason I resist the temptation preferring sulky isolation to the surrounding joy. I frown, immersing my paint brush into the can and stroking the walls of the decaying tunnel with the familiar rhythm. Sounds of laughter echo around me again. Talk about pathetic fallacy, I think to myself bitterly. The high pitched squeals of delight go hand in hand with the admittedly glorious weather and vivid colours. I shake my hand, everything is almost offensively bright. Like a scene plucked from a children’s book, designed to fool the naive and innocent into believing in the lightness of momentary paradise. Their joy rains onto my parade. It is ironic considering I am the sole dark blemish on the purity and sunniness of our surroundings. Somehow that makes me feel worse. I dip my brush into the darkest colour available, a glaring anime purple, and shudder. I watch the young girl next to me spread the yellow paint generously over the walls. She has a butterfly tattoo on her ankle. I think its shamefully typical, but maybe she has it all figured out. Pink butterflies, ankle tattoos, silky blonde hair, and an infectious smile. I look up at the previously grim tunnel now painted to resemble a rainbow. Glitter, unicorns, butterflies, rainbows, and me, I think to myself. Name the thing the does not belong. I smirk and start to think about rainbows, the irony of sunshine and rain working together. I look to the herd of giggling girls next to me. Sunshine, I think to myself. Suddenly, I stop, feeling a genuine smile creeping onto my lips for the first time today. This rainbow wouldn’t exist without rain. I am grim, dark, and hopelessly past naiveté, yet I can’t help but giggle, and for one moment I feel as though I truly belong.

A Night at the Opera

While individual classes might leave the school for an activity that enriches students’ learning, like the recent grade 12 biology excursion to a lab at U of T, we regularly take all of our students to attend live performances. We attend live theatre and opera in part because we hope that our students enjoy the experience, but there is considerably more potential benefit to a night (or afternoon!) at the theatre than just pleasure.

Last week, The Abelard School attended The Magic Flute, presented by the Canadian Opera Company. Mozart’s opera tells the story of Tamino’s quest to rescue Pamina, whose hand he has been promised in marriage by the Queen of the Night. The characters struggle with and against the forces of good and evil as they contemplate what it takes to live an honourable life. The opera features deeply-loved music like the Queen of the Night’s “Der Hölle Rache,” and the charming duet between Papageno and Papagena. True to fairy-tale form, everything ends happily.

The opera gave us all lots to talk about in the following days. Among other things, we discussed metatheatrical staging, the history of opera performance in Austria, the difference between historical production practices and staging today, and the (dated!) representation of women in The Magic Flute. Pedagogically, it is important to see live performances because these are all subjects that aren’t as easily accessed in reading a libretto or score alone. A live performance weaves together layers of meaning, where the languages of the stage–lighting, acting, design, writing, and more–are at free play with one another, collectively either reinforcing or asking us to question our initial responses.

There are less tangible but equally valuable reasons for bringing the entire school to the opera. A 2015 study by researchers at the University of Arkansas demonstrated that attending theatre, “increases student tolerance by providing exposure to a broader, more diverse world; and improves the ability of students to recognize what other people are thinking or feeling” (Greene et al). The report compellingly argues that students become better at navigating the world around them for having attended a live performance. Or, as another study more succinctly puts it, participating in theatre “provides an environment […] which support[s] young people in making positive transitions to adulthood” (Hughes 70).

Attending The Magic Flute, then, reflects one of the core philosophies of an education at Abelard. We are committed to helping students discover their own strengths and to developing their morals and values so that they might help make the world a better place by their contribution to it.

Works Cited

Greene, Jay P., Collin Hitt, Anne Kraybill, and Cari A. Bogulski. “Learning from Live Theater: Students realize gains in knowledge, tolerance, and more.” Education Next, Vol. 15, No. 1, Winter 2015. http://educationnext.org/learning-live-theater/.

Hughes, Jenny, and Karen Wilson. “Playing a Part: The Impact of Youth Theatre on Young People’s Personal and Social Development.” Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2004, pp. 57-72.