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.

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