Why it’s important to play the recorder badly.

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So yesterday my friend Bonnie shared that her son had reached that momentous moment in his academic career: the playing of the recorder in music class. Her tweet gave me flashbacks to my days of teaching Grade 5, when one fine spring morning my class would troupe back from music clutching brand new recorders, and when, by lunch time, I’d find the music teacher in the staffroom with a suffering expression and a bottle of Tylenol. After a few occasions subbing for those music classes I wondered how she even made it till lunch time.


Anyway, Bonnie wanted a blog post on the subject of recorders, so here it is. As I’ve blocked out much of my memory of being in a classroom full of recorder-happy children in order to preserve my (admittedly tenuous) grasp on sanity, I wasn’t sure what I’d write about. I walked home yesterday afternoon thinking about recorders, their painful high-pitched squawking reverberating around my head. What is the point of teaching recorder? And why do the kids enjoy it so much?

As much as parents might think it’s simply a chance for teachers to indulge their sadistic sides, I think it goes further than that. I’m sure playing the recorder addresses music-y learning objectives like reading simple notes, practicing tempo, and so forth. And of course it’s a way to introduce students to the joy of playing a musical instrument (and to prepare parents for when their child returns home from the first Grade 7 band practice gleefully toting a french horn). But what occured to me, as I thought about it, is that learning the recorder gives kids an obvious, acceptable, and gloriously loud opportunity to fail.

Failure is essential to learning. Yet think about how failure is perceived in schooling. We shy away from failures, we try to mitigate failures, we cover them up. We correct students rather than giving them the chance to learn from those mistakes, to fix them, to try again. Only the most perfect papers earn a place on the bulletin board. Failure in the classroom is the disappointment, the shame, the resignation that comes with that big red ‘F’ on the top of a paper. Failure is punished instead of being celebrated. Failure is a finality rather than an opportunity to try again.

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I watch my four year old son as he learns. There’s no fear of mistakes, there’s no shame when things don’t go right. On our fridge are drawings of pink dogs, people with three arms, and a Tardis much smaller than the Doctor (our kid’s a Whovian – did you expect any different?). He builds and rebuilds Lego until it becomes what he sees in his mind. He reads aloud with confidence, knowing that it’s ok that not every word is perfect, that we’re there to help him when he struggles, to celebrate with him when he does get it right. Next year he’s off to school and I cynically wonder just how long it will be before all his dogs are brown, before he learns to fear trying.

As every parent, every teacher, and likely every child knows, kids are terrible at playing the recorder. But we also know that terrible is how it’s supposed to be. In a class with 24 other kids all blowing the wrong notes at high pitched frequencies there’s no shame in making mistakes. And that’s just what kids need – that safe space where it’s ok to fail, where, no matter how badly you mess up, you know the music teacher, with her infinite patience (and hopefully a good set of earplugs), will soon let you start from the top all over again.

Don’t worry too much, Bon – he will get better. It will still be painful – we are, after all, talking here about a 6 inch tube of plastic that really has no business being called a musical instrument. But after a bit of time, after a lot of failing, ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” will finally start sounding more like Mozart and less like Metallica. The next day he’ll bring home the french horn.


I hate New Year’s resolutions. Every year I make the same ones, and every year they go out the window by about January 2nd (except the one to floss more regularly – I did pretty well with that one).

Maybe it’s the term ‘resolution’. If you have to resolve to do something, it’s likely something that’s not very pleasurable. I also spent too many years on the school debating team hearing the phrase “Be it resolved that…”.  Now, whenever I hear the word resolve it makes me argumentative.

But what else to call them? Goals sounds too concrete. And too easy to beat yourself up over if you fail. Hopes sounds too nebulous. Aspirations, maybe?

So instead of making a long list of things that I’ll both fail at and forget within a week, I’m going to try and spend the next year aspiring to one thing: being a better role model for my son.

Of course, being the type of detail and list oriented person I can’t help but think how that’s going to break down. I want to read more, write more, and blog more than twice a year. I want to make healthier choices around what I eat and I want to exercise more. I want to be kinder to myself, to accept myself and others for what we are rather than what I think we should be. I want to find a way to live life less chaotically, with more intention.

And to finish this goddamn PhD.

Mother’s Day

I wrote this a few weeks ago, but haven’t been sure if I would share it or not.  But I think it’s time I started blogging more.

There are no Mother’s Day cards appropriate for my mother. When I was young it was easy. A card made at school, some flowers liberated from the neighbours garden, undercooked pancakes in bed. The effort was on my mother’s side, pretending my scribblings were a work of art as she scrubbed maple syrup out of her sheets.

But now…

I tell myself I have to do this, it’s Mother’s Day, and I have enough guilt. My heart starts beating faster as I pull up to the care home. Maybe it will be a good day and I’ll see recognition in her eyes as I kiss her hello. Maybe she’ll be asleep so I can just leave the card and flowers and flee. I’m not sure which one I wish for.

My mother is in the end stages of dementia. I have watched her die, piece by piece, over the past six years. I’m waiting for that final piece to go, for her to be free. For me to be free.

“It must be so hard for you,” people say. I nod politely, arranging my face into what I hope is an acceptable mix of acknowledgement of the hardness and appreciation of their sympathy. I think they know as well as I do that hard doesn’t begin to describe it. But what else is there to say? Just as there are no Mother’s Day cards, there are no words. We don’t talk about dementia; we don’t know what to say to those suffering from it, or those affected by it. We need to give people the words.

It was when my dad was dying that mom’s symptoms first really started showing up. For three months my dad was ravaged by cancer, and instead of drawing on the family for support, my mom became increasingly suspicious of them: paranoid delusions, the medical term, but also such a loaded and fraught term. My uncle had changed my dad’s will to take all his money, my cousin was coming into the house at night to poison our food, my aunt was stealing things from our house to sell online. I didn’t know it was dementia then. I was just angry at my mother for making it even harder than it should have been.

I wonder, now, if dad had been covering up mom’s condition. I wonder if the stress of having to manage a house, pay the bills, do the things my dad had always done was too much for her. I wonder if I wrapped myself so tightly in the shell of my own grief partly to blind myself to her struggles.

A year later she ended up in the hospital, the paranoia and disordered thinking finally becoming impossible to ignore. Her house was littered with pages full of license plate numbers of cars that were following her, notebooks of noises the people in her walls made, copies of police reports about the neighbours shining lasers into her house. She was diagnosed with frontal-temporal dementia. The doctors said she couldn’t live on her own. Unable to recognise in herself what everyone else was seeing, she refused to move into any sort of supported living. So I quit my PhD and moved myself, my husband, our dog, and our soon to be born son from England to her house in Vancouver. And it was ok, for a while. With someone there to reassure her, someone to manage things, she seemed to get better.

Then one day my husband came home and found her on the floor. A stroke, the paramedics thought, but CTs and MRIs disagreed. Hmm, the doctors said, we don’t know what this is. Seizure was the best they could come up with, so they put her on meds and sent her home. These episodes kept happening. We’d find her incoherent, confused, non-responsive. She’d spend a few days in the hospital, then come home, each time leaving a bit more of herself behind. She could no longer drive, then she could no longer cook herself food, then she could no longer be alone in the house. I shuttled between doctors and daycare, tried to fit in my PhD work between driving her on errands, set up a complex system of ‘visits from friends’ so there was someone with her when I had to be at work.

We finally convinced her to move into and assisted living facility (if a two-bedroom apartment in a posh retirement community can really be called a facility). The pattern of ‘episodes’ (mini-strokes? seizures?) every few months continued her step-wise decline. I dreaded the phone ringing, the nights in rigid plastic hospital chairs, chasing doctors who couldn’t tell me anything. I was angry at her for being in the hospital. I was angry at her for getting better. Then last summer she didn’t.

Status epilepticus – repeated seizures that grip the body for hours, days. Finally the doctors could actually see the seizures happening, not that it mattered, not that there was much to do. Seizures, wrapped up with dementia, and something called cerebral amyloid angiopathy. Plaques hardening the small blood vessels in her brain until the mere act of blood moving through them shattered them like glass. Were they caused by the seizures, or were the seizures a result of the brain overloading as blood got re-routed? Chicken or egg? Does it even matter?

This time she didn’t recover. We moved her into a long term, advanced care facility, where there are round the clock nurses to feed her and dress her and wipe her ass. So much of her brain is dead, the doctors told me, looking at the scans. She won’t live till Christmas. Yet Christmas has come and gone, it’s once again summer, and she’s still here. Somewhere.

I push open the door to her room, holding the flowers in front of me as an offering. As a shield. She’s sitting in her wheelchair, the TV tuned to some old black and white musical, the type she used to love. She looks up as I greet her, looks surprised as she grunts an acknowledgement. I put the flowers in a vase, sit next to her, and start to read her the card – To A Special Grandma, Happy Mother’s Day, Love James.  But she’s gone again, as remote and unreachable as the grainy dancers on the TV.

DML Commons

So I’ve signed up for the DML Commons ‘Professional Pathways’ course.  Basically it’s a way of kicking myself in the butt to get my website up and running properly, and to start blogging more.  I watched the first webinar yesterday, and really am trying to internalise the message to just get something up there.  Being a perfectionist, I spend more time trying to make my site look pretty rather than posting any content.  Or maybe it’s because I don’t have any interesting content to post…

Bye, Vancouver.

vancouverI’ve lived in Vancouver for most of my life.  I was born here and grew up here.  So were my mother and grandfather – our family here goes back well over 100 years.  I moved back here from England five years ago, after my dad died and my mother was diagnosed with dementia.  My son was born here, and, I thought, would grow up here as well.  But that’s no longer an option. Continue reading

Research Proposal, v. 2


A brief summary of my proposed PhD research.  If you have some strange desire to read the entire thing you can download the PDF here: Threshold Concepts in Connectivist MOOCs 

My study aims to explore the lived experiences of participants in a cMOOC (rhizo15). I conceive of it as a phenomenological inquiry, and am using threshold concepts as a heuristic to help identify the types of knowledge and skills that support successful participation in this environment.

So what does that all entail?  A bit of background… Continue reading

Getting back to it

It has, clearly, been a while since I paid any attention to this blog.  I’d like to claim that I’ve been busy doing Very Important Things, but really, it’s just slipped through the cracks.  Last spring and early summer were taken over by my research proposal… written, re-written, defended, re-defended, and then dumped at the side of the road so it could depress me no longer.  Further work on it was disrupted when my mom’s dementia got severely worse – hospital visits, finding a higher level long term care home, and clearing out her previous flat took all my time and energy.  And so, come September, I found myself busy and burnt out, and I decided to take a term off from my PhD.  And now that term off is rapidly passing by, without a lot to show for it (well, besides far more Lego structures than any adult should ever construct). Continue reading