Abelard’s Reading List

We tackle an ambitious selection of great works in our English courses at Abelard. Of course, we hope that students enjoy the books they are tasked with reading, but we also firmly believe that great literature informs other aspects of humanistic (and sometimes scientific) study. Further, as C.S. Lewis once observed, literature enriches human experience:

“Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.”

And so, in grade 9 our students tackle three different Shakespearean plays, the poetry of Robert Frost, classic novels like Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, and The Great Gatsby, and more. Our grade 10 students explore the roots of the European canon, reading the Bible, Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, the plays of Sophocles, and even Beowulf. Our grade 11 class pushes into contemporary literature, reading Hamlet against Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead; they also tackle other great works that facilitate connections to other academic disciplines, like Bartleby the Scrivener and philosophy, or East of Eden and students’ study of the Bible in grade 10. In grade 12, in addition to classical texts, students explore modernist and postmodernist greats like Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and Ulysses by James Joyce. To this list, of course, we must add all the literature that students read in their second- and third-language courses, such as Hugo’s Les Misérables and Camus’ L’étranger.

One of the long-term benefits of this diverse and carefully curated reading list is that our students, upon arriving in at university, report back to us that they are immensely well prepared for the kind of critical discourse that is expected of them at a post-secondary level. After all, it is much easier to pick out a classical or biblical allusion if you’ve already read the source texts where so many great authors are inspired. We also find that our reading list affords our students the kind of broad cultural literacy that makes for better citizenship both while students at Abelard and once graduated and in the ‘real’ world.

As we look forward to the new school year, we are so excited to share all this great reading with our students!

Postcards from Paris

Our grade 11 and 12 French students have just returned from a week in Paris. On the flight back, they wrote some post-cards to the school. In no particular order, here is what they had to say about their trip:

The Paris trip was an amazing experience. The art was beautiful, especially in the Musée d’Orsay. The food was incredible; I recommend you try everything at least. My favourite part was going on a big ferris wheel with Madame and Ms. Silver. Chocolate: great. Macarons: great.

— Dominik

It still doesn’t feel real, I’m not sure we actually went to Paris. We saw so many things that I thought only existed on post cards, but we actually got to walk through them and take pictures. Being with my French class and getting to see everything with them made it so much more memorable. We got to walk along the Seine and tour all the museums and take some really great group selfies. The Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre were beautiful (I made Taz take about thirty photos of me in front of Olympia), my family is sure to be jealous. Speaking French with so many real French people was intimidating, but I learned so much on this trip, so much about the culture as well as the language. I’m so thankful for Mme. Rossinsky for organizing the trip and taking us to so many of her favourite places. This has been one of the best weeks I think I have ever had and I’m so glad I got to go.

— Willow

The trip to Paris was worth 4 years of French class and I’d honestly do another 4 years to go on this trip again. The trip was well worth the cost, even if my legs and feet were dying every day. The museums? Nice. The food? Nice. The sense of pride and slight fear you get when an actual French person speaks French to you? Nice. I’d give this trip 7.8/10, too much walking.

— Som-O

I adored visiting the city of lights! What struck me as interesting was that Paris, in its deceivingly monotonous colour palette of grey, comes alive in high flying buttresses and stain-glass windows that take your breath away. Its intimacy and meandering streets were something to revel in as well; on any given corner there could be a hidden gem of a bookstore or museum, or you might turn a corner and see a monument that used to reside within the confines of a post-card. And, of course, the food was amazing. Thank you to Mme. Rossinsky and to Ms. Silver for guiding us around the city.

— Carmina

Some of my best memories of this trip was just walking around and taking in the sights, being able to look at the monuments, landscapes, and architecture. Every building and even park has its own style and unique beauty to it. I also really enjoyed all the short moments of having a café noisette in some small cute place and having a laugh. We really got to feel fully immersed in the French culture. (We walked more than 110km!)

— Chloe

I really enjoyed being a guide and listening to my peers share their knowledge about different places in France. It was cool to listen to them talk about monuments they have never visited with such confidence. Although I loved all the places we got to go to, I would have to say my favourite was Palais Garnier. The opera has a very unique history and a very beautiful design; it truly feels as if you are in a palace attending a royal ball. Because I have studied Onegin previously, it was really interesting to see it brought to life through ballet. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to see Paris and I can’t wait to come back!

— Jessica

The Paris trip was truly an incredible experience. There was so much to see, so much to do, but so little time. All the museums, art galleries, and monuments were breathtaking and just packed with so much history. Most of all, the memories made on this trip are ones that’ll last for a life time.

— Sara

Paris was amazing! Such a beautiful city with so much to see. I loved how even regular buildings would have statues and carvings on the outside which made them look that much more elegant. Wandering the streets was such a joy, especially at night when everyone would be at restaurants and/or bars. Such a fun time 🙂 Merci Paris!

— Anastasiya

Our trip to Paris was incredible! From walking along the Seine, and exploring various Paris neighbourhoods, to wandering through art galleries, visiting monuments, and exploring the history of the city of love, this trip was a whirlwind of highlights. I came to Paris full of expectations and they were exceeded. I left Paris and already greatly miss it. The streets, churches, charming bakeries and shops on every corner, friends with whom I traveled, and Mme. Rossinsky and Ms. Silver truly created this magical, amazing, charming experience.

I ❤ Paris.
Paris is AWESOME!
Go to Paris!

— Josh

Paris was an unforgettable experience. From the food, to the charm and the buildings and the history, and the baguettes… So many baguettes. We spent our days walking around Paris and learning from each other about everything around us. It was delightful. Stay in French, kids.

— Ariel

It was an unforgettable trip!

I really enjoyed the museums we visited, especially:

– Le musée d’Orsay (focus on impressionist art, but I really loved the sculptures).
– Le musée du quai Branly (which displayed art and artifacts from Africa, Oceania, Asia, and the Americas)
– Le Petit Palais (which displayed art gifted to Paris from around the world, and had a really peaceful and beautiful garden)

But I have to admit what really stole my heart was the Seine. I could stand at its banks and stare at the water for hours. It radiates such a sense of inner peace…

I wasn’t too excited about the churches, which were built with the same overwhelming extravagance as any building related to Napoleon. (Really, Napoleon, enough is enough…) But Sainte-Chapelle was really incredible with its floor to ceiling stained glass windows. For some people, Paris’s churches really are its most beautiful features. I chose this postcard because my mother, when she visited Paris, fell in love with Sacré-Coeur, which sits at the top of Montmartre. To this day, she still talks about how gorgeous it was.

I think many of my classmates (including myself) had a similar experience of having their hearts captured by the city of Paris.

— Taz

Our week spent in Paris was a fantastic experience! All the destinations we visited and opportunities we had opened my eyes to a different culture and lifestyle. Some of my favourite activities were visiting the musée d’Orsay and seeing the ballet Onegin at the Opéra Garnier. I’ll never forget the view of the city from the top of Notre Dame. I know one thing for sure: I’m definitely going back to Paris one day! Thanks to Mme. Rossinsky and Ms. Silver for doing an amazing job of planning/chaperoning the trip.

— Emma

Remarkable Students Keep Us Busy!

The teachers at Abelard check in with one another regularly to keep on top of our students’ academic and extra-curricular (but school-related) lives. Although our students will tell you that our curriculum is demanding and that they often have homework, we do make an effort to balance their workload and allow them to pursue things that matter to them. A recent schedule check-in reminded us of just how remarkable our students are; we’re looking at a busy month!
In the next month, our computer science students will participate in a competition to test the skills and knowledge they’ve acquired with their teacher Mr. Woodford. The competition is administered by the University of Waterloo, and we’re excited to see how our class fares!
We also have students participating in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario’s Model Parliament as representatives for their respective provincial ridings. Over three days, they will get to meet key figures in our provincial government, and take workshops where they will learn about the history of the provincial legislature and about the legislative process.
At the same time, one of our students will be travelling to Ireland to write university entrance exams. We are really proud of our graduates and their accomplishments at universities around the world, so we are really happy to support students whose ambitions take them outside of Canada.
Our students are also hard at work preparing a show for the Ontario Drama Festival (formerly known as the Sears Drama Festival). The play, written by one of our own students, is an ambitious ensemble number that will be performed at Harbord Collegiate on February 26.
We are also thrilled that a team of our students have placed as finalists in the STEM Fellowship Big Data Challenge, and will be presenting their work later this month. The Big Data Challenge is designed to introduce students to data science and to hone their analytical skills.
In early March, we have a few excursions planned. We are heading out as a school on a ski trip, where we will all have a chance to relax and enjoy the great outdoors before March Break begins. During March Break, our grade 11 and 12 French students will go even further afield on a trip to Paris.
As you can see, we have a very busy month ahead. But that’s what happens when you have such remarkable students!

All the School’s a Stage – Abelard’s One-Act Festival

Now that we’re a few weeks into 2018, we wanted to reflect on Abelard’s first one-act play festival that took place in the middle of December. Students in our Drama class have been working hard on smaller dramatic projects all year, but in our classroom we’re always short one pivotal element of the theatrical event: an audience!

To practice working in front of a crowd, and to get the feel of staging a complete play, the class curated a selection of very short plays. Each play was only ten minutes long and featured a small cast of only two or three performers. Like short stories, ten-minute-plays tend to pack a real dramatic punch because they condense so much narrative into such a small package. Thanks to the short run-times and small cast sizes, we were able to perform each play six times.

The turnout was great, particularly given that it was a cold night. Audiences got to choose their own path and see as few or as many shows as they liked, in whichever order suited them best. Our evening included an intimate domestic drama, absurdist takes on the theatre business, a vision of the afterlife, a comedy about when life doesn’t work out how you’d like, and even a new take on Romeo and Juliet. The night was such a success that we’ll almost certainly repeat the experiment next year – hope to see you there!

Waterloo’s Math Contests

Most people who know about the University of Waterloo also know that it is recognized internationally as a centre that excels in teaching math, engineering, and computer science. Its programs are hard to get into and extremely competitive.

As a broad celebration of knowledge, and equally as a low-key recruitment tool, the University also runs annual math and computer science competitions for high school students. The Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing (CEMC), an educational outreach organization housed at UWaterloo’s Faculty of Mathematics, has become very well-regarded because of these competitions.

Recently, our wrote the Senior and Intermediate Mathematics Contests. The contest asks nine questions; three of these need full answers that show the student’s work, and the other six only require the answer. In preparation, our students took a short break from regular math lessons to discuss some contest-style problems. As you will see below, contest problems have their own style to them. They read almost like a joke, having a lengthy set up to a short punchline.

A strong result earns the student a certificate of accomplishment and a very strong result could earn the student a scholarship at UWaterloo. If a student is less successful, they will at least have had an opportunity to stretch their mathematical muscles without affecting their grades. The CEMC’s stated purpose is to “increase interest, enjoyment, confidence, and ability in mathematics and computer science” which is, we think, is exactly what they accomplish.

We won’t have our own students’ results for a little while yet, but if you think you’ve got math chops of your own and want to get a sense of the challenge that our students undertook, try one of last year’s questions.(And don’t forget to show your work!)

For each positive integer n, the Murray number of n is the smallest positive integer M, with M > n, for which there exist one or more distinct integers greater than n and less than or equal to M whose product times n is a perfect square. For example, the Murray number of 3 is 8 since 3 × 6 × 8 = 144 and it can be shown that it is not possible to multiply 3 by one or more distinct integers that are greater than 3 and less than 8 to obtain a perfect square.

  1. The Murray number of 6 is 12. Show why this is true.
  2. Determine the Murray number of 8. (No justification is required.)
  3. Prove that there are infinitely many positive integers n for which n is not a perfect square and the Murray number of n is less than 2n.
  4. Prove that, for all positive integers n, the Murray number of n exists and is greater than or equal to n + 3.

SciHigh Visit with Glow-in-the-Dark Mice

On Monday, the school lunch hour was taken over by a visit from SciHigh, a program run out of the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital. The volunteers were two graduate students in the Department of Cell and Systems Biology at U of T. They came to our school to share their enthusiasm and love of science.
The SciHigh program was developed in the late 90s to promote science in schools across Toronto. The experiments that they demonstrate are intended to make science fun, and to expose young scholars to things that go beyond what is possible in most high school classrooms. For us, they brought several kinds of model organisms including, fruit flies, nematode worms and glow-in-the-dark mice!
SciHigh Mice

A glowing mouse tail viewed through special glasses.


The mice had been transgenically modified to include either RFP or GFP, meaning that their tails and ears glowed in red or green when viewed through special glasses. Many of our grade 11 and 12 biology students have been learning about genetics and biotechnology in the past month, so this was a really unique opportunity. The facilitators talked about being a graduate student, their own research and why model organisms are so important. This discussion also touched on the ethics and responsibilities related to using model organisms in research.

Come Learn About the Stars from Abelard Teacher C.J. Woodford!

If you follow science news, you will no doubt know that this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to the three scientists from the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) Scientific Collaboration. Their accomplishment? They proved Einstein’s prediction by observing the universe’s gravitational waves for the very first time. The waves they saw had been created by the collision between two black holes, and took over a billion years to reach Earth.


On December 7, one of Abelard’s teachers will be giving a talk about these waves at an event that our grade 11 and 12 students will attend. CJ Woodford, who teaches computer science for us, is a 3rd year PhD candidate in the Physics Department at the University of Toronto. He works in the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA) and is a member of the Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) collaboration, working on binary black hole simulations and gravitational wave analysis.

His talk will give you a chance to get an up-close and personal take on the several Gravitational Waves discoveries that have changed science for the better. With the discovery of gravitational waves in 2015 and the recent observation of a binary neutron star, the LIGO-VIRGO collaboration and partners have broken records in physics, astronomy, and interferometry – with still more to come. CJ will lead a talk about what went into the LIGO that discovered the first gravitational wave, GW150914, from theoretical, engineering, and computer simulation viewpoints, plus some of the major discoveries that have accompanied the detections since.
The very exciting news is that you, a member of the public, can join our Abelard students and attend the talk as well, not only to find out more about the cutting edge of research, but also to get a sense of what it’s like to be an Abelardian. For more information, visit the AstroTours website here. The talk will be followed by a chance to look through some telescopes, get a tour of the planetarium, and to check out some virtual reality demonstrations. We hope you’ll come along!

A Learning Community Beyond our Walls

Written by Ms. Michelle Lefolii, School Principal
In my grade 12 Writer’s Craft class last week, the students were working on an exercise in which they were asked to write a passage dense in poetic devices.
One of the intrepid students, Aurora, decided to do some research into less common devices, and encountered one known as the Janus parallelism. It’s a sophisticated device in which a pun is made by including a word in one line of poetry that has one meaning when read against the previous line and a second meaning when read against the line following.
Intriguing. The example given, however, was in Medieval Hebrew. Our class discussed this conundrum briefly and commented on how unhelpful an example it was to those of us unfamiliar with that language.
A second student in the class, Ariel, thought back to his days as a Hebrew student prior to his bar mitzvah, and paired his nine-year old’s vocabulary with his technical literacy, and after attacking his keyboard for a while came up with a reasonable assumption as to which word in the text was being punned upon. This however, unfortunately proved to be a dead end.
Aurora tried the Google translate function with no greater success.
The students had now identified the relevant biblical passage from which the text had been drawn, and resourcefully consulted the English language version. The janus parallelism, sadly, didn’t translate.
Jokes were made about how if only our medieval Hebrew weren’t so rusty we’d have solved the riddle by now, when suddenly we realized that we do, in fact, know someone who probably would stand a good chance of being able to read the Hebrew original.
Through our good friends at the internet, Ariel sent word out to Abelard alumnus Josiah Cohen, now in his first year at Columbia. Within minutes we had the answer, accompanied by a scholarly article Josiah had found relating to the topic.
This will remain one of my happiest moments as a teacher: proof that the Abelard intellectual community extends beyond our walls and after graduation.

Dramatic Radio

Last week, Abelard’s drama class marked Halloween by performing and recording a suspenseful radio play called Sorry, Wrong Number. First written and performed in the 1940s, the play is an excellent example of how writers worked around telling a story with no visuals. Although perhaps less chilling for audiences in 2017, it almost certainly will have spooked listeners back in the 40s. If you would like to listen to our class’s performance, you can download our recording by clicking here.

Our cast was as follows:

Man in Black — Andrew Gilchrist
Mrs. Elbert Stephenson — Molly Franssen Keenan
Operator — Nicole Entin
Crime Boss & Western Union Rep — Marina Loginova
George — Francis Ellington Nardi
Sergeant Martin — Anna Avaliani
Chief Operator — Angelo Ilersich
Hospital Reception — Ewan H.T. Wilton
Information — Constantine Zhang
Announcer — Victoria Tininkin

Music Director — Will Poetker


Abelard Visits the Creative Destruction Lab at the University of Toronto

On October 26, the Abelard School Computer Science class was privileged to attend the Third Annual Machine Learning and the Market for Intelligence Conference hosted by the Creative Destruction Lab at U of T’s Rotman School of Management, one of the world’s premier conferences on this topic. Speakers included leading scientists (such as Carnegie Mellon professor and head of AI at Apple, Russ Salakhutdinov, and MIT professor Max Tegmark), leading investors from Silicon Valley (such as Steve Jurvetson who wrote one of the first cheques supporting Space X and Tesla, and Albert Wenger of the famous New York venture capital firm Union Square Ventures), and pioneering entrepreneurs (such as Elizabeth Caley, whose AI startup to enhance scientific discovery was recently acquired by Mark Zuckerberg). Also making a guest appearance was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Many thanks to Joshua Gans and Jennifer O’Hare for including our students in this conference.

Here are some student reports on this extraordinary event.

Aurora Bolianatz:

While at the Machine Learning and the Market for Intelligence conference on the 26th of October, I got to listen firsthand to many presentations on the future of artificial intelligence, and what it means to be human at a time when we are becoming obsolete. The speakers delved into subjects such as embodiment, brain science, and artificial general intelligence; however, the presentations I personally found the most interesting were the ones regarding the future of humans in an AI world, and how we can approach the subject wisely.

The first presenter to really spark an interest in this subject for me was Max Tegmark, a professor at MIT. He spoke about the incredible leaps and bounds AI development has seen in recent years, but also reminded us of how things can go horribly wrong so quickly without proper management. There were four main points he made on how to correctly control the approaching future of AI: the first, to make sure lethal autonomous weapons are banned. Biologists and chemists have both worked hard to ensure that the specialists in their fields use their knowledge for cures and beneficial uses, not for weapons, and both fields have banned bioweapons and chemical weapons. Tegmark encouraged us to follow suit, and make sure AI will be used for good, not evil. This follows through into his second point, using AI wealth to benefit all people, not only a select few. His third point was to invest in safety research, drawing our attention to the Apollo 11 launch, stating that NASA calculated every possible thing that could go wrong, and put safeguards in to ensure that no catastrophes happened. Much like the space launch, AI is a field where it is much better to get everything right the first time instead of learning from mistakes. Finally, Tegmark asks us what sort of a future we wish to see, as that is the truly defining piece for the future of AI.

Another presenter who spoke on the importance of humans in AI was Joshua Gans, professor at the Rotman School of Management at U of T, who discussed the value of data. Though many people today consider data to be immensely valuable, Gans argues instead that the data will become meaningless once used, and the true asset in prediction machines and the like is human judgement. The knowledge and skills we have accumulated as humans are so valuable to the AI process, as we design the machines, give them their purposes, and can clean up after them in case of all hell breaking loose. The human mind is an astonishing thing, and though AI have been able to recreate themselves, they simply cannot ever replace us in every way.

Contrary to the previous two professors mentioned, in his presentation, Ben Goertzel emphasized the importance of leaving humans out of AI development. While I see his point that AI learns better without humans hindering it, I also think his suggestion of a sort of cloud space in which AI could communicate and share information without human guidance is pretty terrifying. The amount of power and knowledge they could potentially accumulate is enough to wipe out humans as a whole, and while I understand that we haven’t been the best for this planet (or each other), as a human, I really like the idea of Not Dying Due to the Robot Overlords. 

Ariel Gans:

The CDL conference was a lot of fun. The talks were all very interesting and I especially enjoyed the surprise visit from the prime minster. The topics I found most interesting were those discussed in the presentations by Richard Sutton of University of Alberta and Suzanne Gildert of Kindred AI. The base idea I liked from those two talks was that in order to prevent a Terminator Judgement Day situation, we need to keep our general intelligences’ goals and ideals in line with ours. This led to the idea that we should aim for cooperation with AIs, not control. If we create a truly sentient AI and we’ve given it our morals and creativity and all that, we’ve made something very human-like. Gildert talked about how these are likely the integrated AIs that we will end up creating. She talked about how there’s a huge market for robots that are essentially flawless humans. And if we create flawless humans, maybe we want to integrate them into society like humans. A strange feeling I got through the end of Gildert’s talk is that if we’ve created artificial beings with our morals and which identify with us and our history, maybe we don’t really need to worry about being wiped out as a race, since a future parallel to or perhaps even replaced by technology is likely going to be our legacy. Another theme of the conference was that a large upside to coming to conclusions like these is that we can prepare for these possible futures, legally and socially, before it’s too late. On the legal side, having a solid framework for technologies like self-driving cars and robotic doctors before they are everywhere greatly reduces the risk of something going horribly wrong. On a lighter note, I learnt that there are machine learning methods far better than deep learning at playing video games, which I found quite interesting. The winning method was the one that was able to strategize in a very human-like fashion, coming up with the “hit the blocks at the top” strategy for brick breaker all by itself.

Dominik Bednarczyk:

The conference hosted by the Creative Destruction lab were incredibly interesting. I enjoyed how they brought in many experts from different fields with different points of view to discuss a variety of ethical and logical issues surrounding the implementation of AI into our society. Being able to see these experts discuss the topics and to learn which ideas conflicted and what they all unanimously agreed on was extremely interesting. My personal favourites were the AI embodiment session and the Vicarious session because the speakers had the most energy and I liked how personal one of the speakers got. I enjoyed the Embodiment lecture in particular because it showed what we still need to work on and what we have already achieved, which allowed me to think about which fields I might want to invest time and effort in to have the least difficulty finding work and helping to speed up progress in the field I particularly enjoy. The Vicarious speaker gave an amazing presentation about the future and compared AI to different levels of consciousness throughout Earth’s history. There were also many interesting startups present,  some of which I already use and others which have huge potential for our society. But obviously the most interesting part was the special guest; Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Not only was I excited to see that our prime minister supported the idea of implementing AI into Canadian society and his plans to make Canada the AI hub of the world but being able to ask him questions about the future of AI in Canada was especially amazing. Mr. Trudeau discussed the moral implications of self driving cars, which I am personally very passionate about, and the revelation that he studied and enjoyed poetry in University was particularly funny and interesting. All in all the speakers were amazing to listen to, gave great insight into humanity’s future with technology and were presented in such a way that was easy to understand and grasp.

Konstantin Uvarov:

My favourite thing that I encountered in the Creative Destruction Lab – Artificial Intelligence Conference was a start-up company which helps people immigrate from other countries to Canada. I think that this kind of usage of Artificial Intelligence will be very useful because it will allow people to spend less time filling in documents. All that people will have to do is just to type their information and scan their documents for the program and the program will do the rest of the work for them. It will be very beneficial for both sides: people will spend less time doing their immigration paperwork and the government will not need to worry about hiring lots of people to do the same job as the AI program can do. In conclusion, I also think that this start-up company will become, in the near future, a necessity for a Government of Canada because it will not make any mistakes in laws and will be 100% accurate in making decisions.