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.

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.

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/

Monthly Update – January

We’re back at it! After a restful holiday, students and teachers at Abelard are tackling a dizzying breadth of concepts and learning exciting new skills.

In grade 9 science, students have been working through the study of optics. They’ve learned about curved mirrors and reflections, and how these are used practically (like on telescopes such as the Hubble). Ms. Nemr’s students are learning about quantities in chemistry; they completed a mini lab experiment where they calculated the number of H2O molecules they drank in one sip of water. Mr. Kilgour’s aspiring chemists wrapped up organic chemistry (a unit in which they did very well), and moved on to chemical kinetics. Dr. Schwartz’s grade 12 biology class took a trip to the research lab of Dr. Peter Roy in the Donnelly Centre at U of T. There they learned about how the nematode worm, C. elegans, can be used in drug discovery screens. They also carried out labs to learn about molecular biology. The grade 11 biology class did labs that introduced them to aspects of biological diversity, and participated in debates on ethical questions related to medicine, agriculture, and the environment. Mr. Luciuk’s students learned about electricity and magnetism; of note was an in-depth discussion about the microscopic origins of magnetism. Mr. Amatuni’s computer class modeled their first real, working prototypes on the base of Cisco network’s simulation platform after an intense immersion in the fundamental concepts of the Internet.

In English, Ms. Lefolii reports that they have been busy! Her grade 12 students have been studying the influence of William James’ Principles of Psychology on Virginia Woolf’s ground-breaking development of stream-of-consciousness as a narrative technique, and they’ve written fascinating essays on the concept of text in Moby Dick. In Grade 11 they’ve been discussing the thorny issue of Free Will in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and exploring Heironymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, a bizarre 16th c. visual counterpart to Milton’s poem. In Canadian Literature, they have been following the current controversy over award-winning author Joseph Boyden, and discussing how identity is a central concern of not only the literature of our own country, but of literature in general. Poetry writing with the Grade 9 English class is gaining momentum as students begin to get used to the idea not just of reading metrical poetry but actually writing iambic pentameter. Mr. Young affirms with enthusiasm that budding poets lurk beneath math and science aficionados! Our ESL students have been talking about everything from going on adventures in the Australian Outback to how we can be more responsible with our spending.

Among our other language learners, Mr. Klamph reports that in Mandarin they have been talking about illnesses, allergies, and seeing a doctor. They are getting pretty good at describing symptoms and talking about taking medicines. They are also on the way to mastering a unique grammatical structure (with no equivalent in English) for talking about changes to objects. Mme. Rossinsky’s grade 9 French class is working full blast on food/cafe/restaurant vocabulary; they are fully capable of ordering in French. In grade 10 French, students bravely fought their way trough an un-adapted (though shortened) version of Hugo’s Notre Dame. They also studied French Art and Artists and composed their own fairy tales. Grade 11 French students are studying what is, according to Mme. Rossinsky, the best unit of the course: they are learning how to declare their love (should they ever need to) to a French-speaking person. The grade 12 French Civilization class is studying the Enlightenment; Mme. Rossinsky is confident that all are now fully enlightened.


In the social sciences, Mme. Bratchuli shares that the geography class has just started exploring connections between landforms, geology, and human activity in Canada. They have learned, in detail, the factors that determine climate in different geographic regions all around the world and in our own country. Dr. Atallah is tackling psychology with her students; they have been on a mission to understand how neurons function – a fun challenge.

Of course, February will bring new and exciting projects. Among many other new ventures, students enrolled in Writer’s Craft will continue their exercises in imitation by penning their own “faux” Cormac McCarthy. Grade 9 French students are going to try to cook some traditional French food. The Grade 11 biology class will go on a trip to Allan Gardens to learn about plant diversity. Mr. Luciuk and his students will be building electrical circuits once they’ve finished learning all their theory. American history students are about to open the book on the Civil War.

We are all also marking the Chinese New Year in early February – the celebration kicked off on January 28 and continues until February 11. (Solomon, Constantine, or Oscar can teach you some Chinese New Year’s greetings!) We are also very excited about the Sears Festival and our school’s performance of an adaptation of Chekhov’s hilarious comedy The Marriage Proposal. The performance will take place at Bishop Marrocco High School on the evening of February 27th. Everyone is welcome to attend! For tickets and other information, contact the school.

Here we go!

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.


New Arrivals – Meet Oscar and Constantine!

Every few years we have students join our community from abroad. This year we are pleased to welcome two young men from China in our grade nine cohort. We recently interviewed them to find out more about their lives back home, their thoughts on Toronto, and their hopes for the future.

Ting and Tian have recently adopted Western names; Ting has chosen Constantine and Tian has chosen Oscar.

Abelard [A]: Tell us about your family – is it big? small? Do you have any siblings?

Oscar [O]: I have a small family – my mother, my father, and I.
Constantine [C]: My family is pretty big, but I don’t know most of them. I lived with my parents in a flat. I also have two cousins. Of all my family, I am closest with my parents and cousins.

[A]: What do you want to do when you finish high school?

[C]: Firstly, I’d like to go to U of T. Second, it’ll be great if I’m fatter than I am now! Last but not least, I want to be a reasonable person, to manage my life well, study harder, and to have the respect of others.
[O]: I want to be a scientist or a doctor.

[A]: How do you like to spend your spare time?

[O]: I like to listen to music and learn new English words. I also enjoy reading science books and Chinese books.
[C]: I like to do some sports and to exercise to keep fit. What’s more, I’d like to hang out with new friends; it would be interesting to go to the cinema or to a park to hang out. Furthermore, I sometimes listen to music, I like to eat some snacks, and to practice English. I also like to nap!

[A]: Do you have a favourite band? TV show? video game? movie? and why is it your favourite?

[C]: My favourite band is Maroon 5 – I think their songs are good! My favourite TV show is Green Arrow because it talks about friendship and I want to learn archery. I like the Marvel and DC movies as well as the Fast and Furious series; they are exciting, and they talk about friendship and family. They make me feel warm. I don’t play video games.
[O]: My favourite band is Maroon 5 because their music is powerful. My favourite TV show is the Voice of China; I like this show because it is a competition. My favourite video game is LoL because I can play it with my friends. My favourite movie is Fast and Furious – it has a lot of great drivers!

[A]:What do you miss about your home country?

[O]: I miss my parents, my friends, and my house.
[C]: I miss junk food the most! I know it’s just junk food, but it’s really delicious!

[A]: What do you like most about Toronto (so far)?

[C]: I like the people. They are enthusiastic and open-minded. They always say sorry to others, which is really polite. They smile to others which makes me feel warm.
[O]: I like the trees and mountains. I also like my teachers. I like to go walking because in China there is too much pollution and I can’t go outside.

[A]: What do you wish more people knew about your home?

[O]: My city, Harbin, is beautiful. We have a thousand-year long history.
[C]: I’m not very fond of my hometown, so I don’t want them to know anything!

[A]: If a genie granted you three wishes right now, what would you wish for?

[C]: I wish I could rule the world, that I could have a time machine, and that I could eat whatever I want!
[O]: I wish good health for my parents, I wish to have a science laboratory, and to be able to visit China to see my teachers for one day before coming back to Canada.

(Responses have been edited for length and clarity.)