Reimagining an All-Girls School: A Conversation with Linden Founders

Posted by Admin on March 08, 2019 at 9:02 AM

Diane Goudie and Eleanor Moore

Diane Goudie and Eleanor Moore at the 2019 YWCA Women of Distinction Award Announcement Reception, March 7, 2019.

As two of Toronto’s foremost educators, Diane Goudie and Eleanor Moore are known for their signature style of bringing different perspectives to the table to weave together new ideas and approaches to education — all centred around one simple, game-changing concept: “What happens when you put a girl in a story?”

Establishing a new school, and ensuring its relevance for the next generation of students, is no easy task. That the school’s sought-after feminist pedagogy continues to influence educators both locally and internationally is a testament to Diane and Eleanor’s vision — a vision for which they just received the prestigious 2019 YWCA Women of Distinction Award. We thought it would be a fitting occasion to honour our co-founders’ contributions during the school’s 25th anniversary year by interviewing them. What follows below is a candid discussion about their experiences, their thoughts on the evolution of feminist pedagogy, and everything in between.

Linden: Could you tell us about yourselves as students? Where did you grow up and go to school? What kind of learners where you? What kind of teachers did you have?

Eleanor: I grew up in Christchurch, New Zealand and went to a public co-ed elementary school and to a university prep publicly funded girls’ school. My high school was known as a highly academic school (in fact it had been established to prepare girls to go to university) and students were assessed and placed in classes according to their Grade 9 entrance test performance. We were all required to take the sciences and mathematics, history, geography, English, a foreign language, art, and phys-ed for our first three years, only really specializing in years four and five. However, there was never any question that we were being prepared to go to university or some other form of tertiary education, and that we would enter the workforce as professionals.

Diane: I went to school in Toronto, attending both public and private schools. Learning came easily to me, arguably too easily. It was not until university that I had to learn how to study, and even there, it was less of an opportunity to “think” and much more of regurgitation. It was not until graduate school that I was encouraged to analyze and begin to trust my own experience and thinking skills. Looking back, it was those rare teachers who provoked independent thinking that I remember fondly.

Linden: Take us back to your pre-Linden days, when you were both teachers and administrators. What were some of the school systems and pedagogical practices that made you feel a different approach was needed?

Eleanor: I worked in a girls’ school in Toronto in which the standard of academic excellence and pedagogy was considered to be on par with local boys’ schools. That always struck me as a disjunct. My MEd dissertation was a study on how girls viewed their education in a girls’ school, and over and over the response was that they felt voiceless. Their response resonated with research that was being conducted at that time to reveal girls’ psycho-social development. It occurred to us that a girls’ school should look different from a boy's or co-ed school because our learners were girls. Feminist pedagogy was finding its voice, and there was a growing body of knowledge and information that provided a foundation for developing pedagogy and curriculum. We thought that a school structure should reflect and respond to the current research and to our experiences working with female students.

Diane: I remember, when working at a Toronto girls’ school, that a Grade 10 student wanted to suggest an improvement to the school uniform. She came to me saying, “I know that I cannot speak because I am not a prefect, but I was thinking ...” This incident, quite apart from the research that Eleanor speaks of, reinforced to me how we obliterate the voices of those to whom power is denied. Learning how to empower and share power was a lesson that we all learned while working together at Linden.

The act of creating our very first Linden science lab was one of developing pedagogy and theory into daily practice. We were thrilled to find a lab configuration where participants could see each other to discuss and compare their findings. Such a freeing change from the all-facing-forward styles we had known as students, one which validated each learner’s experience and necessitated her offering her own contribution to the class learning.

Linden: In reimagining a school for girls, did you also know that you would be redefining workplace dynamics for faculty? A place where there would be a shift in power and much more?

Eleanor: No, I think we were focused on the pedagogical practices in which our faculty would have to engage and with developing the Ontario curriculum into one that would ensure that not only the voices of women and girls, but also other voices which had been largely ignored, would be heard. As feminist pedagogical practice was not one that was taught in faculties of education, we needed to work together with the faculty to develop these practices. There was quite definitely a shift in power, and the faculty were very willing to try out and educate all of us in new ways of negotiating power in the workplace.

Diane: I suspect that we knew we were in for a bumpy ride when we changed structure and pedagogy. So much of Linden was founded on trust. We believed in the experience and the expertise of our teachers. We told our girls that we would listen to them for as long as it took for them to feel “heard” (and we also added that we would not necessarily do as they said). What we did not know was what we would hear, and how that could and would impact this new school of ours. I always asked a new faculty member what they would do when they saw me about to do something really stupid. I hired the person who said that they would stop me. We relied upon our mission statement to guide us through those difficult decisions, and none of us could predict the outcome of such a collaborative and trusting process. It only failed when we failed to trust and fell back upon old procedures. There is wonderful magic in the Linden process.

Linden: How did you get faculty excited about these changes?

Eleanor: Most of the faculty who wanted to work at Linden were people who wanted to engage in the process of creating a school, one in which new research in their own philosophical viewpoints about education could be tried and would be supported. Some found that making the shift from what they had known to question those practices and bases of power required a more significant change for them than they felt comfortable with.

Diane: Being trusted is a heady experience. Many Linden faculty thrived and welcomed the tough thinking that Linden requires. Some floundered, relying upon their power as teachers to reinforce their views, and avoided the concept that at Linden we are always learning together. This can be humbling. For some, joyous and liberating, and for others, terrifying.

Linden: In 1993, the “F” word (feminism) was relatively controversial, and some would argue it remains so. What were some of the major concerns back then, and how did you address them?

Eleanor: The F word was indeed controversial, and we tended to use the phrase “girl-centred” to describe the school and our use of a pedagogy that responded to girls’ educational and social requirements. We were always stressing that as a school it was our responsibility to know what the current and credible research was telling us and then use that research to create the pedagogy and curriculum and structure which reflected that knowledge

We tried to defuse the “man-hating” piece that generally came with questions like “Do you still teach about Michelangelo or male authors?” It was interesting that no one had ever asked in an interview at my previous school if we taught any female authors. In addition to the “anti-male” piece, we would also be asked whether, if we were girl-centred, were we fostering a lesbian lifestyle. We continued to be clear about what we were about, and if being equitable in our program and curriculum was problematic for a family or prospective teacher, we would agree that perhaps it was not a good fit.

Diane: It was and still is a lightning rod. We alternately avoided and endorsed the word. One of our first graduates revelled in being able to tell her university seminar that she had learned of many feminisms at Linden. I think that as our reputation has grown, and we have solidified our status as a unique girls’ school, we have shied away less from that label. There is no doubt in my mind that Linden exists because of feminism. There is also no doubt that were we to ask 25 members of our community to define feminism, we would hear 25 entirely different responses. And that is good.

Linden: As you embarked on this journey, what were some of the most unexpected things you encountered?

Eleanor: How difficult it was to “sell” the school, and in particular to sell to families in the broader community who in their own lives were self-identified feminists. Even though it was 1993, many still equated feminism with “man-hating.” The level of criticism from some of the other girls' schools in Toronto was also unexpected. We realized the need to embrace a broad and all-encompassing interpretation of feminist pedagogy and what is an inclusive curriculum.

Diane: On the joyous side: being surprised by the teacher and student innovations that Eleanor and I had no prior knowledge of, such as our Grades 5 and 6 writing a new Kwanzaa song, the steel pans busking, the art class painting the school walls, the sock drive for the homeless, the birthday party organized by our Grade 10s, the skits about nits and life at Linden — “It’ll never fly.”

On the sadder side: the considerable pressure to make Linden a target of homophobia, the concern of some parents that Linden would turn their daughters into lesbians, the reluctance of some parents to allow their daughter to risk, possibly fail, and thereby learn invaluable lessons in a culture of trust.

On a personal note: the extent to which my own thinking was challenged and broadened by the Linden community. So often, surprised by joy!

Linden: In founding Linden, you disrupted the way girls were traditionally taught. Do you see all-girls’ schools in Toronto changing as a result of Linden?

Eleanor: Yes, it was only a couple of years into the school that we began to see the words we used in advertisements or open houses being quoted by the other schools. As the research that we used and pioneered in our pedagogy and curriculum became more accepted and seen to be an advantage, the other schools began to change. As one principal of a large girls’ school said: ”I could not even begin to make some the most minor changes that you have made, for example, placing student desks in semi-circles and not rows.” Equitable practice is difficult when institutional structures are not equitable.

Diane: That is a tough question. I am most reluctant to speak about other schools. I do see their ads and recognize our words. Whether their practice is as ours is, your readers will have to decide. I do know that we are guided daily by our very clear mission, and that to inform one’s practice and daily routines by such a mission requires deep thought and deep conviction. That is hard work. It is not easy to stay true to The Linden School mission ... and it takes both time and practice. It also requires that new members of our community be educated about Linden ways and culture.

Linden: Every Linden girl wants to change the world for the better. In today’s world, why is it essential for a school to prepare girls to be change-makers? What do you say to the detractors who want schools to focus on teaching a “traditional” curriculum devoid of any social justice content?

Eleanor: It is important for young people to be idealists and to want to make the world a better place. It is imperative that we enable girls to make mistakes, to regroup, and to try again. Our world changes very quickly, and our girls must be prepared not only to be change-makers but also to be able to respond to changes efficiently. Excellence in education is not a traditional vs. social justice dichotomy. Those who advocate for conventional math practices, for example, ignore the experience of all of those young people (especially girls) who dropped math because it made little sense and had little relevance for them. We must include math skills that encourage feelings of confidence as well as problem solving, because the point of math is to use our skills to solve problems. We must have a purpose in our learning, otherwise, why do we need to know these subjects? By incorporating purpose, such as using math to help us address issues of poverty, homelessness, and pollution, we make math relatable and engaging for girls.

Diane: In these times of ours, it is clear that if we are to survive as a flourishing planet, we must change. There are powerful forces at work who use the status quo to further their own ends and increase their power. If we put the Linden mission into our lives, then each of us must be a force of change. There is no ideal past, and the future that our girls and their children will inhabit must reflect their knowledge and their critical thinking expertise. Linden has many voices. They will not agree. I am convinced that this discourse, and an ability to listen to and for the voices of others, will evolve our best prognosis for the future.

Linden: What do you see as the biggest challenge in education today?

Eleanor: Fear around not being “good enough”— parents worrying that their children do not have the internal abilities to be successful. The consequence of that is sometimes they tell their children that they are great and that all they do is excellent (even if it is mediocre), so kids just don’t believe their praise and therefore lose confidence in the person offering what they perceive to be “fake” praise. It also means that children are being pushed into extra activities and classes, reinforcing a sense of not meeting expectations. This fear factor seems to be permeating all areas of our society and is not reserved only to parents. It is a challenge for educators to listen to these concerns and to work with their students to develop learning opportunities which enable the young people to be proud of their competencies.

Diane: It is tempting to agree with Eleanor but after team thinking with her for so many years, I will take a slightly different tack. It is a massive challenge for educators to enable their students to “navigate the grey” (JoAnn Deak). We are in an age of great change, as we know, and children must be educated to risk, to experience uncertainty, and to trust that their experience will enable them to pick themselves up and continue successfully. As educators, we know that children need time to dream, to experiment, and to create. We must guard against supplying the “right” answers. There may, as our faculty member Nasrin Matini well knows, be more than one answer. What we refer to as “ Heli’s theorem” is not just a Linden story. It is a human story about how Linden trusted the thinking of a student (as she came up with a different way of solving a mathematical conundrum.) Only as we encourage such thinking and give our students exercise in practising those creative-thinking muscles can we hope to equip those leaders of tomorrow.

Linden: What drives you now? What are you most looking forward to?  

Eleanor: Well, I remain passionate about the work of Linden, and I am so proud of the school. I would love to see more ways in which our students can make connections in their world and beyond and use their agency to make a difference. On a personal level, I am having a wonderful time with music, learning about our world through travel and reading, and enjoying some wonderful time with my family. As 2019 progresses, I know that my political passions will have to be dusted off again and exercised more vigorously than in the last few years ...

Diane: Most looking forward to? Seeing the light at the end of this particularly bleak political time. I hope that I do in my lifetime.

I have real joy in knowing that The Linden School continues to create a disturbance in Toronto education. Also, that its graduates inhabit distinctive and differing situations in the world. I rejoice that the Linden community still leads and grapples with girls’ best education and issues of social justice. I hope that this is not ever an easy struggle. That keeps us strong. Family, music, travel, and Linden tales bring me great pleasure. My learning continues.

Linden: Thank you both for your time!

Video by former Associate Principal Julie Wood and Vanessa Shrimpton.