Workshop 1: Conversation and Uncertainty
January 23, 2010
When you get to be my age, one page doesn’t cut it…but here we go…
I am a mother of three grown children and wife to a lovely man who, after 32 years, still brings
me flowers, pours my wine and cooks me gourmet meals.
We are empty nesters; my daughter and her family live on the west coast, my youngest son is in
the armed forces in Edmonton and my recently married middle son lives in downtown Toronto.
We loved our time altogether this past Christmas, especially since we now have a baby, my
granddaughter, who has reconfigured family dynamics to the point that differences have faded
away and we unite in the joy of our Clara.
I’m the youngest of large immigrant family. My Dad, though loyal to his native Italy (a
soldier of eight years in its military) started fresh in Canada. He encouraged his children to
speak English and nurtured a pride in this new land, ripe with promise and freedom. Like Tevya
in “Fiddler on the Roof,” however, he was soon challenged by all of us children to shed the
values and customs of his native Italy. He did so with great resistance at first but by the time it
was my turn to break him in, he had already softened quite a bit. Unlike my two older sisters
whose marriages were arranged and who, despite their obvious gifts of intellect, had to abandon
their studies before graduating high school, I was given the freedom of choice. My high school
career was very rewarding – I was involved in many activities and my marks in Gr. 12 and 13
were such that I was afforded some independent learning activities that boosted my confidence in
ways I would never forget. I was the first in my family to attend and graduate from university –
St. Michael’s University at University of Toronto. My first professor, Fr. Richard Donovan,
remained a lifelong friend until his recent death.
Although my true desire was to work in penitentiaries, teaching reading and writing, I
was discouraged by many who feared for my safety. Ironically, my first teaching assignment
was in a suburb of Toronto that had recently seen an influx of new immigration and tensions
were extremely high – picture West Side Story – rumbles and all! I worked like crazy and even
enlisted my husband in lighting our drama productions and cheering on the basketball team.
After three years, I left on maternity leave and those 16 weeks of leave somehow turned into 10
Those ten years raising my family were so rich! I was never bored. Although all my
prior teaching experience had been in Grades 6-8, I loved being my children’s teacher. They
thrived – they loved to read, cook, dance, put on puppet shows, visit the library, swim, skate…
we did so much. I was explicit in the ways I spoke to them…careful to identify what they saw in
precise vocabulary. For example, “Can you see that blue robin? See it in perching in the maple
tree?” How rewarding it was to see their eyes widen at every new thing they learned!
When my youngest son was in JK, I returned to teaching but this time I started in JK, too! It
worked out so well for my schedule but, more importantly, matching my real life experience to
that of the kids in the classroom helped me know my students’ profiles a lot better.
After three years in kindergarten, I moved to Grade One where I learned so much: how
kids learn to read, to write, to make sense of numbers, and how they make sense of their world…
We used the whole language approach then and I was so fulfilled to see those kids learning right
before my very eyes! For seven years, my colleagues and I honed those literacy acquisition
skills. Almost 15 years since then, several of us find ourselves working together again as
Literacy Resource Teachers or Consultants!
Every year, more and more students with special learning needs were placed in my class
and I learned even more: about elective mutism, autism spectrum disorder, ADHD – and the
strategies that would benefit these kids and the others, too. My teachers were my students, their
parents, and my educational assistants. One day, after teaching a math lesson, my educational
assistant asked me “Did you see what Mario was doing while you were reading that story?” Of
course, I didn’t see Mario because I was preoccupied with the story. So we switched roles. She
read, I watched. I saw so much that I had missed that gave me a fuller understanding of Mario.
So we made this a regular practice and I jotted down new stuff I learned about my students. This
was also a time when I learned a very systemic approach to reading instruction: The Guided
Reading/Reading Recovery model and I was able to monitor and document the students’ growth
in reading skills. What I learned about literacy through this process has helped my teaching ever
After seven years in Grade 1, it was time to get back to the older kids. I moved to a new
school community to teach Gr. 6 (and loved it!) then went on to secondary school. What I
enjoyed about that was that I could teach a whole group of kids with special learning needs and
get my fix of that and the following period teach a university course. I enjoyed working with
“my own class” and my own preferred subject (English literature) but I also got a great deal out
of working with students in other teachers’ classes, individually or in a small group. I liked
collaborating with a variety of teachers and departments and having a global perspective on the
entire student body. Before I knew it, I received an invitation to apply for a position as a literacy
resource teacher for my school board. That has been the pattern of my career – doors open and I
walk through, headlong, into the unknown.
It was no surprise to me that I had a difficult time adjusting to what felt like a more
passive role. I missed the energy and challenge of young people around me all day. I missed the
energetic pace of the day which I traded for endless meetings, sitting, sitting, and more sitting.
What I do love is the opportunity to finally keep up with current research. What I love most is
collaborating on a larger scale to effect system-wide change. I get to do this with people who are
visionaries and who care a lot about kids and how they learn best.
So, with two years to go before retirement, many people ask me, “Cathie, why are you
working so hard, still? Why go for your Masters at this point?” But those who know me know
my answer: “I love teaching and there’s still so much to learn!!!