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Syd with the Smrke Kid: Day 2

June 20, 2013

The aforementioned game of cards turned into an absorbing late night conversation about how each of us dealt with feelings of privilege – the recognition of all the things others have done for us, consciously and subconsciously, that were necessary to get to this point.

I still managed to get out for a run at 7:30 the next morning, though! Well, I will be honest and tell you that the only reason I got all the way out of bed was that I could hear other people in the hallway already. We had a rainy and soggy but invigorating run.

After a quick breakfast, we were in the campus theatre for the start of our retreat. I had little idea of what to expect, but when we got there we were told by Natalie and Kari that our goal was to design a plenary talk we would be giving on Friday. A plenary is a “talk that everyone goes to,” a uniting point of a conference like this. Probably, about two or three hundred people will attend. Our task for the day was to figure out not only what we wanted to say but how we wanted to say it (which, I would argue, is just as important).

Here, Kari and Natalie’s background in theatre shone, to our advantage. We played games that helped us understand the space we were working with in the theatre and encouraged us to really use it. Throughout the day, they were wonderful at shepherding us through an exercise that could have been derailed so many times in meaningful but not entirely productive conversations. Still, I never felt like I was being forced into deciding something. I was in awe of their facilitation skills, and in awe of how well we listened to each other as a group. It was a gratifying, challenging day.

But what did we actually do?

We played Mennonite Madness ( and, a game Kari and her friends made up 20 years ago that’s made it into friend games folklore. We messed around with play dough. We talked about our seven year old selves – things we had gotten in trouble for doing when we were younger. We were encouraged to keep hold of these characters/parts of ourselves and draw on them for the rest of the day.

Then we split up into groups and had to come up with “How might” questions that related to higher education in some way. “How might universities be more like X-rays, revealing underlying structures?”, for example. Okay, I give that example because that was one of my questions and I want to confirm for people who are reading this that yes I am weird.

We came back and shared all the questions. Next was a surprisingly difficult deliberation process where we chose which few we wanted to let frame our plenary talk. A desire for simplicity and clarity meant we had to winnow eight down to three, which really doesn’t sound that bad. But it took a few hours. I am pretty sure it took a lot longer than anyone was expecting. But the process of us getting there – of disagreeing and trying to respond to the questions in different ways – was where a lot of learning happened, at least for me.

But, after some shepherding from Kari and Natalie, we settled on our three:

How might we challenge the “cult of busy”?

How might we listen to, recognize and respond to people’s untapped potential?

How might we give a megaphone to someone’s whisper?

Then, we were tricked. We were told to do a ten minute stream of consciousness writing exercise about one of the questions. About how we would feel talking in front of hundreds of people about these questions. So we did. Furiously scribbling, we filled up papers.

But that wasn’t the end. Once the ten minutes elapsed, Kari told us that we would be delivering what we had written, as a memorized speech, to the rest of the group, in about ten minutes. She taught us a great technique for memorization that she called “On/Off”. Read the words out loud and think about the main images and ideas. Then turn over the sheet of paper and recite to the best of your ability what the text was, using the images and ideas as footholds. Then, repeat as necessary. Within three cycles, you generally have things memorized, and even if a bit of wording escapes you, the ideas will still come through.

But, digression to explain that memorization technique aside, I want to understand that we were being essentially pushed off a cliff and told to fly. It was a big deal to have to share what we had written to ourselves, essentially in a completely private moment, with others. And I think that had our trust in each other not been as strong as it was, the whole episode could have gone very differently.

As it was, though, it was affirming. I had chosen to write about the cult of busy – and because I had a lot to draw on from my overwhelming recent term of school, I found myself visiting upsetting, challenging territory, asking myself things like “What is this behind this drive for more?” and flatly stating the dangers of busyness, the dangers of being extended and distracted and the terrifying reality of not knowing when or how to pull back and dim down. And saying these things out loud – the questions, the misgivings, the frustration, moved me to tears. And while I was doing this, and after, there was a constant stream of support: little pats on my back, kind words, even just the way I was listened to.

Others as well took this plunge and spoke their words. All the stories and speeches were different and none of them are mine to share, so I will leave it at that, except to say that with that exercise we solidified this common understanding we had of who we were as individuals and as a group.

What I also appreciated was that Kari used the exercise to show us all the different places someone could stand and set themselves up to address the audience: from the seats, on the stage, in the aisles, walking around, from behind a curtain. It was really thoughtfully done.

We moved into a much-needed lunch break. I enjoyed the large amount of hot peppers on my wrap and was caught up in learning about Sea to Sky (, an immersive nature camp for elementary and high school classes. Natalie worked there as an educator for a while. She told us about a week when the salmon were spawning and so swimming up the creek near the school – they decided to throw their educational programming out the window and let the students spend as much time in the creek with the salmon as possible. It was inspiring to think and hear about.

In the afternoon, we took our questions and ideas and turned them into this:


… a plan for how we would explore them and how we would incorporate both parts of our own stories and engage the audience. We’ve decided to play against type and expectations, to step away from traditional expectations for a roundtable discussion and to make it a lot more dynamic. Incorporating stories, some humour. I have high hopes. I am excited to see how it turns out on Friday.

A one hour break (which yours truly spent napping in the sun) later, we were off to the Joan Harriss centre (right beside the world’s largest fiddle!) for the conference opening reception. I met some very friendly educators, including someone who did her master’s on how adolescents interpret family stories – what do they remember and what do they draw meaning from? I also talked to a newly minted prof who had spent four unstable and challenging years as a sessional instructor. I got to greet one of the McMaster contingent – the wonderful Dr. Carolyn Eyles.

I also got to eat mussels! This was a highlight.

After the reception, our group wandered around downtown Sydney trying to find a restaurant that was both open and able to serve our various dietary needs and restrictions. No such luck. We boarded a bus back to campus and vowed to order pizza (though yours truly had eaten so many mussels and other appetizers that she was no longer hungry :P).

And that’s where I leave you. The conference starts tomorrow. Though I feel that with our group, things are already well underway.

Oh, yes, pictures. Here they are:

IMG_0918 IMG_0915 IMG_0919 IMG_0921 IMG_0923 IMG_0924

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