About jchan

I met Stephen Young on Twitter. I was at a conference and saw an awesome picture of Former Mayor David Miller doing a rock star pose with a guitar and had to reach out to him on Twitter. In my search for David Miller’s twitter handle, I found Stephen tweeting him to ask him to speak at his upcoming Civics Education Network conference. I knew that I had to reach out and find out more. After a 2 hour coffee meeting, Stephen agreed to do the Islands of Excellence interview.

Stephen Young is a high school teacher at Rosedale Heights and the Founder of Civics Education Network.


What is an Island of Excellence?

I don’t like the term islands. It feels disconnected from everything else. I go into my head and think – ok, Island of Excellence. We have been playing with trying to think of ourselves as a Centre of Excellence, for CEN anyway. We provide, we develop resources and excellence for civic education. If you want to teach someone about civic education, we are going to have the top quality of everything you would need, at least of what we can provide. We are going to bring people together, who will help develop that together, to help you and you will contribute back to be a perpetuating network of civic education. So, I don’t know how Islands fit into that. What is connecting the pieces? So maybe more like a hill of excellence?

Other organizations are not like us, we are connecting to practitioners. We are connecting to the people in the classrooms and the students who are connected to the people. There are other organizations like Civics and Student Vote, they aren’t exactly like us. But there are the politicians and the activists, there is a massive community of civic engagement and civic society, the whole concept is: let’s connect to civic society and the knowledge they have to the educators who know what they are doing and those who don’t. We aren’t connecting to other organizations; we are connecting the people who need the support with the people who can provide that support. I have picture of a railroad or a round house, or a web of sorts. That is so overused. More as a centre of connections.

Describe your best or most challenge day.

Personally, I would have to say my best day was my wedding day. My wife would kill me if I didn’t say that. *laughing* It is fresh in my mind. We did it all ourselves.

Yesterday, I confirmed Michael Ignatieff as a keynote for the conference. I don’t know what he will say, but Hey! He will draw the numbers.

(pause for more thought)

September 4th. Yes, the start of school. It is both best and challenging. You don’t know what you are going to get. There is a whole group of kids in front of you, some of them you know, some of them you don’t. They are very different. The 9’s are scared witless. The 12’s are thinking about getting into university. The 10’s and 11’s are thinking “I gotta be here, so I am going to cause sh*t all year.” They are very different and very challenging to figure out. But by the same token, I just spent a week redoing my classes and I am excited to put them in front of them and inspire them.

When did you do something that surprised yourself?

This isn’t really a specific moment. I am surprised that this organization is functioning. CEN started 7 years ago; about 5 years ago we got off the ground. I went into City Hall, after being involved with other organizations that had used the city chambers. So, I proposed the idea of having a mock city hall to Kyle Rae. I had a chat with Kyle Rae, he says “great idea”. He says come by during the next council meeting and tap me on the shoulder. So the next week I come back, he hands me a copy of the procedures book. I spent a week simplifying and compressing it and then we brought 3 classes down. We spent the day playing the roles of mayor, councillors  city staff, and the whole she-bang  We sat in the council chambers, they gave us access to the voting procedures and the voice system, and they could turn the mics on and off. That led me to the idea that this could be a program. We could do this with teachers who were interested. But that idea flopped, the city had no interest or money. The teachers didn’t have enough time. So it fell apart. I try again and got a bunch of OISE people. So, we got to an organic place where we do conferences and inviting councillors and activists into the school. And things keep growing. Now we are talking about doing a councillor shadow program. We are working with an intern to see what might happen. It is sitting on a back burner now.

What are the benefits of connecting educators from different fields and industries?

Schools can function in two different ways. They can function as islands. They are little specks on the landscape and they do their own thing and then that’s it. High schools are more likely to be like that than elementary schools. Elementary schools have more parental connections and connections to the neighbourhood. There are a lot more of them, they are hyper local. High schools are larger. There are islands within the building. The departments are islands; you hang out with your department. In our building, there are 3 distinct floors. Our top floor is academic, our 2nd is has some academic, our basement is our arts.

You have to try and bring schools into the community. Schools are trying to do this more and more. It is challenging. It is a challenge of how you do it too. The easy root is to do the Terry Fox run. Let’s raise some money and give it to a charity. The TDSB really promotes this too. These are all really good; they all connect to the community in some way. But I think schools could do better. I think schools could connect better, taking the kids and actually saying “How can we improve our community?” It doesn’t just mean giving money. “How can we reach further into the community and truly become part of it?” You know, help build outside and around; more than giving money and walking away. “How do we knit it into the fabric?” For some schools this is easier than for others, it depends on what community the school connects to. Is it the local community or some other community; like our school connects to the arts community because our kids come from all over the city. The universities are better at this. They weave themselves into the city better. They can make a small change to the campus, but it is a massive change to the city.

Tell us a story about an Island of Excellence who you know

There’s Taylor Gunn, who runs Student Vote. Bringing mock elections into school and giving students the chance to experience democratic process. I believe in 16 year old voting. I think if that was the first time they were voting, then it would keep them voting.

There’s Jayme Turney from Toronto Public Space Initiative, he is quickly becoming a power or knowledge in that particular field so we’ll see where that goes.

We are very excited to announce registration is now open for Islands Of Excellence.

Islands of Excellence has been and continues to be a statement of community, conversation and collaboration. From the Hack Jam in July and all the events that we have been a part of planning and attending since, Islands Of Excellence is rooted in community-based learning.

We hope you will join us to be a part of the learning experience on November 16 and 17th. Participation for the conference is limited to 40 spaces and 75 spaces for Pecha Kucha.

Today, we went back to where it all started. In May, Kathryn and I attended our first event together, TEDx YMCA Academy titled “The Heart and Soul of Learning Disabilities” and today we went for “Machines and Minds”. These two events really encapsulate the kind of school the YMCA Academy is, a school of inspiration, experimentation, taking risks and putting themselves out into the public to share.

The TEDx talks were each inspirational in their own way, speakers ranged from entrepreneurs who are designing for education or have had unique education paths of their own to a brain scientist. I admired each speaker for their courage to share their stories. I especially liked the personal accounts of learning practices and differences.

The YMCA Academy expresses vision and passion for learning differences and we are so excited to be hosting Islands Of Excellence 2012 in the school.

Make Waves,


EdCamp Toronto was started in 2011 as part of the global initiative. EdCamp Toronto plays a unique role in the development of Make Waves.

I was part of the planning committee of 2011 and through the experience my drive for conversations of what is happening in k-12, higher ed and alternative learning really grew. I formed the Bad Kids Collective last year as a place to start a conversation about bad kid behaviour. How could we prove that the kids that fidget, have wild imaginations and are disruptive to the status quo were also engaged in learning and could really shake things up? In partnership with my design-driven community engagement consultancy, Exhibit Change, my team hosted an unconference called “Everybody is a Teacher“. “Everybody is a Teacher” lent itself to starting a big conversation of what ifs. – what if schools were different? what if we challenged the system? what if we were all teachers? what if we were always learning? what if we were all engaged? The day brought on amazing conversation and was a stepping stone to where I am now.

When EdCamp Toronto 2012 planning committee started up again, I went to the first meeting and I met Kathryn!!! Now the months have past, the planning is coming to a close, I have started a harvest committee to really try and inspire people to capture the nuggets of the day.

Tomorrow is EdCamp Toronto. I am excited to see old and new folks passionate about the way we currently learn and the way we can learn in the future. EdCamp Toronto is a place for voices. Those voices are saying different things but have overlapping threads and I am intrigued to pull them out.

I am bringing these 3 questions with me:

  • What is driving learning in the 21st Century?
  • How do you make space for learning?
  • Where are the openings for innovation?
Follow the conversation at #edcampto


On July 11, we hosted a Hack Jam for Islands of Excellence. We hosted this Hack Jam for a 1 reason, find out what people are thinking. And we got that question answered and then some. We asked a few simple questions and let the conversation flow. We are so excited to get a chance to launch Islands of Excellence and already have so many people interested in supporting the project. We asked about best, worst and day/days of the week for conference preferences. These logistical questions have really helped us to help define what kind of professional development and connections people are craving.

We also facilitated a bit of group discussions and got an overwhelming amount of information that we are slowly working through and digesting. There was so much information, that I fear we have been a bit delayed in relaying it out.

Here are the first few things we are working on:

  • logistics for the actual conference (date, place, etc)
  • glossary of terminology that we use (hack jam, unconference, etc)
  • features of Islands

This last one was the biggest take away for us. What is an Island of Excellence? This was one of our group discussion questions and the conversation just erupted (haha island humour). We love when there is so much insightful, critical and engaging inquiry and discussion that is rooted from an idea that we are still testing. This is what prototyping is all about! Check back in the next little while to see who is being featured.

Get out there, make waves!


We are heading to NYC for #140edu! #140edu is exploring “The State of Education NOW”, it is about connecting, getting inspired and sharing voices. How cool is that!

We met Jeff Pulver at a meetup in Toronto for #140confONT in May and he invited us to come down to NYC as his guests to the conference and to go to the speakers dinner, we sealed the deal with a legendary Jeff Pulver hug.

New York is one of my favourite cities. Its bright lights, dazzling energy and constant buzz are exactly why I think #140edu is the place for us to officially launch Make Waves into the world. We have been connecting at home and we are ready for the BIG stage. If you are at #140edu, please come say hello to us and we will happily give you one of our spanking new bright green business cards and if you aren’t at #140edu, feel free to follow the conversation on twitter. I am sure there is going to be something for everyone and all kinds of inspiration for Islands of Excellence.

Make Waves!


Hey there! Thanks for dropping by : )

We are really excited to get our site up and running, in the next little while we will be sharing more about how we got started, who we are, what we are up to and what you can expect. It is all thrilling!!!

Enjoy the summer, keeping learning and connecting with us! And stay cool, have a freezie ; )

Jenn & Kathryn