November 2019—Dr. Denise Pope helped our community examine preconceptions about success and stress during a two-day visit with faculty and staff, parents and students. A Senior Lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a co-founder of Challenge Success, she was the inaugural visiting scholar of our Chandaria Research Centre (CRC).
Pope is an expert on students’ experiences of workload, stress and well-being. She shared insights on how to help students adapt to and cope with stress, including the importance of sleep and allowing for unstructured time in their busy schedules.
She also spoke at the annual Branksome Hall Parents’ Association Luncheon, co-sponsored by the CRC.
“When we talk to students, the definition of success is very narrow,” she said. “You have got to get the grades to get into university, to get the high-paying job, to get to happiness,” Dr. Pope noted. “However, when [you ask] parents to define success for their kids, they say happiness, health, balance and well-being.”
Pope emphasized the importance of what she calls PDF (playtime, downtime and family time). Incorporating these into weekly routine are vital to creating healthier, happier students—and adults!
October 2018—Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, shared her powerful stories and film excerpts with Grade 6-12 students.
“Truth is worth fighting for,” says the Pakistani activist, who is making a difference in the fight for women’s equality.
She began writing for newspapers when she was 14. After studying economics and political science at Smith College in Massachusetts, she set out to highlight the inequalities of women and children, pitching her first documentary about Afghan refugee children in Pakistan. Despite multiple rejections, she never gave up.
Since then, she’s made more than two dozen films on topics such as women’s access to contraception and the Iraq war’s impact on children. Her film Saving Face, about acid attacks on women, earned her first Academy Award.
To reach her most important audience—impoverished, rural women and children—she created Pakistan’s first mobile theatre. Though often threatened for her investigative work, she won’t be silenced: “That’s just part of fighting.”
April 2019—Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, spoke at the closing ceremony of the 31st World Individual Debating and Public Speaking Championships, hosted by Branksome Hall and held in Canada for the first time.
A former journalist, author and Oxford University-educated Rhodes Scholar, Freeland has served as various international newspaper bureau chiefs, deputy editor of The Globe and Mail and managing director of Thomson Reuters. Her best-selling book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else won the Lionel Gelber Prize.
In her keynote address as Branksome’s 2019 Rachel Phillips Belash Speaker, Freeland identified distinctive Canadian values such as the belief that “diversity is our strength” and our openness to immigration and trade. She also focused on our challenges. “The threats to liberal democracy are greater now than at any time since World War Two,” she said. “Over the last two or three decades, Western industrialized countries have seen a hollowing out of the middle class and we’re reaping the political consequences.”
In her insightful and rousing speech, she ultimately conveyed hope and conviction about the upcoming generation’s talents and resolve to make a better world.
April 2019—Dr. Lisa Damour wants parents to rethink their assumptions about the impact of stress. The psychologist and best-selling author spoke to a sold-out audience of 500 Branksome parents, alum and the public, about her book Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls. It was the only Canadian stop on her international book tour.
In the face of increased anxiety among young girls, psychologists argue that the function of stress is to make one more capable and more durable, said Damour, the Executive Director of Laurel School's Center for Research on Girls. “Stress is usually what happens when we’re operating at the edge of our capacities, and when we operate at the edge of our capacities we usually expand our capacities.”
However, not all stress is healthy, she noted, as “psychologists don’t like chronic stress and we don’t like traumatic stress.” Damour says parents can help their daughters with stress by giving them time to recover. “Your job is not to prevent stress, it’s actually a critical part of her development.”
She also offered tips on how girls can best take on stress and anxiety, including getting more sleep and interacting less with technology.
April 2019—Asmatullah Azizi Arab, an Afghan refugee who has built a new life in Canada, was the guest speaker for the annual Green Carpet Celebration, embodying Branksome’s values of optimism and resilience.
Growing up in Kabul, he dreamed of shaping a better world, especially for impoverished children. In Grade 10 he was accepted to the Army and Navy Academy military school in California. Soon after, Asmat’s family received a death threat from the Taliban.
“[They] believed I was being trained as a spy,” he said. After the Trump administration issued a travel ban on Muslim countries, he realized returning home would be a “death sentence.” Unable to renew his student visa, he sought asylum in Canada. Through family friends he met Cory Miller, the Branksome guidance counsellor who became his legal guardian and helped him to secure a scholarship to Ridley College.
“If she had not believed in me, I simply wouldn’t be here today,” said Asmat. “I have a vision for the future of my country and I had promised myself that, no matter what, I will help transform Afghanistan to be a stable country,” he said.
Asmat is now at Huron University College on a full scholarship, pursuing the next phase of his dream.
“All over the world, in my experience, young people, no matter how young, say things of great wisdom. They say ‘it’s not fair’ and ‘you’re not the boss of me’ — that is the basis of all social justice movements.”
October 2017 - Gloria Steinem, a writer, lecturer, political activist and feminist organizer, spoke to more than 600 students at Branksome Hall and later to a sold-out audience at Convocation Hall.
Ms Steinem travels throughout the United States and other countries as an organizer and lecturer and is a frequent media spokeswoman on issues of equality. She is particularly interested in the shared origins of sex and race caste systems, gender roles and child abuse as roots of violence, non-violent conflict resolution, the cultures of indigenous peoples, and organizing across boundaries for peace and justice. Her 2015 book, My Life on the Road, is her first in over 20 years. She lives in New York City. For more about Gloria Steinem, please visit: http://www.gloriasteinem.com/
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“My motive for writing is to do something good in the world.”
In February 2018, renowned author Anne Michaels spoke to an auditorium of Grade 11 and 12 students.
The Toronto-born writer and poet read her poetry and excerpts from her novels including her acclaimed novel Fugitive Pieces, a book Grade 11 students are studying. “I thought it was really interesting and I enjoyed hearing the excerpts she read,” said Grade 12 student Polly.
Ms Michaels engaged with student questions about her writing process and shared her journey as a writer. “No matter where a book travels, for me, the end has to offer some sort of redemption. It has to take us to the other side,” said Ms Michaels.
This was a sentiment that struck a chord with some aspiring student writers. “It’s really nice for us to get insight into what it’s like to be a writer because it’s so interesting,” said Grade 12 student Claire.
Branksome welcomed Ms Michaels as this year’s Rebecca CHISHOLM Clarkes’66 guest writer. To honour Mrs. Clarkes’ love of literature and creative writing, her classmates, friends and family established the speaker series in her memory, to bring a well-known writer to Branksome Hall each year.
“This is an annual opportunity for our community to come together and celebrate the written word,” said Jillian Strimas, English Instructional Leader and organizer.
Branksome has previously hosted esteemed writers such as Thomas King, Miriam Toews, Lawrence Hill and Heather O’Neill. Adding Ms Michaels to the list was an obvious choice. “Anne Michaels crafts some of the most brilliant sentences I’ve ever had the pleasure to read,” said Ms Strimas. “She writes with extreme clarity and control and is able to condense the most universal and complex human truths into a few simple words.”
Ms Strimas adds, “For example, take this line from Fugitive Pieces: ‘To be proved true, violence need only occur once. But good is proved true by repetition.’”
Over the course of Ms Michaels’ career, she has garnered many accolades including being awarded the Orange Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Gugganheim Fellowship. She is also currently serving as Toronto’s Poet Laureate.
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“This country is a social innovation. The idea that diversity can work for you, and not against you, is a great lesson for Canada and the world.”
In June 2018, we welcomed The Right Honourable David Johnston to speak at our end-of-the-year ceremony, Green Carpet.
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Michelle Poler, the founder of the “Hello Fears” movement and creator of “100 Days Without Fear,” spoke to a packed student assembly about facing her fears, and later, to guests at the Branksome Hall Parents’ Association annual luncheon.
While answering student questions during assembly, Ms Poler discussed why she grew up with so many fears. She remarked that it began with her grandfather, who had been in a concentration camp and was a Holocaust survivor. Even though her grandfather was able to escape, her family still carried memories of fear and survival, and consequently lived life with great caution.
Today, Ms Poler is an internet sensation, inspiring thousands of people around the world to get out of their comfort zones with her mantra that fear is not an obstacle, it’s an opportunity. After all, Ms Poler believes the enemy of success is comfort, not failure.
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Branksome alumna Sarah LEVY'04 delivered a heartfelt speech about her years at Branksome Hall and her successful performing arts career after graduation. Ms Levy is currently starring as Twyla Sands on the award-winning CBC sitcom Schitt's Creek, alongside her father, Eugene Levy, and Catherine O'Hara.
Ms Levy said that she owed much of her desire to pursue a career in the performing arts to her time studying under Director of Performing Arts Ms Judith Friend. Ms Friend inspired Sarah, who played Mrs. Webb in the Branksome production of Our Town, to follow her dramatic arts dreams.
"Branksome helped develop me as a writer, dancer and artist," she told the audience, which consisted of Senior and Middle School students, and invited guests.
She emphasized that it hasn't always been an easy road, and urged students to not take a career in the arts lightly. "You have to commit whole heartedly. I mean, really commit. Don't be afraid of committing because you might fail."
After completing her studies at Dalhousie University, Ms Levy faced numerous rejections before landing a role in Larry Crowne starring Tom Hanks.
While Ms Levy reminisced about her memories at Branksome Hall, she also shared an inspiring message with students—one that encouraged them to find their true passion. "Do what you love. If you really love it, go for it."
She concluded the afternoon by directing an important message to all aspiring creators in the audience. "We have a responsibility to infuse the world with creativity and imagination because there can never be enough art."
Ms Levy is currently filming the third season of Schitt's Creek.
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Branksome readers had a special treat when award-winning Canadian novelist Heather O’Neill answered their questions about the writing life during her presentation in the PAC. O’Neill’s first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals won the 2007 Canada Reads and the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction.
Lullabies is a gritty coming-of-age novel lovingly set in run-down Montreal. She is the winner of two National Magazine Awards, while her second novel and a collection of poetry were both shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
O’Neill became a writer when she got her first journal as a gift. “I liked the idea of writing down everything that happened to me that day and turning my life into fiction,” she told the students. No sooner had she filled a journal, however, then her father, “who was involved in criminal activity,” would throw it out as he knew it would contain evidence that could be used against him in court.
Fortunately, a high school teacher admired a short story she’d written about a cockroach who tried to pass himself off as a cricket and told her she had a talent for writing, encouraging her to continue.
Ms O’Neill visited Branksome as the 2017 Rebecca CHISHOLM Clarkes’66 Speaker. The speaker series, which brings a well-known writer to Branksome Hall every year, was established in 1986 as a tribute to Rebecca by her classmates, friends and family.
“It is a wonderful gift for students to hear authors speak,” says organizer, faculty member Jillian Strimas. “The Rebecca CHISHOLM Clarkes’66 Speaker Series humanizes the writing process and allows young people the opportunity to hear directly from some of the most esteemed cultural producers in the country.”
Aspiring writers in the audience would have felt ready to tackle the page with all of the actionable wisdom Ms O’Neill shared. She writes from 9:00 a.m. – 5 p.m., but advises new writers to start with just one hour and build from there. She recommends developing an aesthetic of your own, exploring all the art, music and literature that inspires you. For Heather, that included stories of her father’s gangster life in depression-era Montreal, stories which inspired her latest novel, The Lonely Hearts Hotel.
She advised young writers to take any opportunity to share their work, “because every time you do something, you get braver.” Not only that, but people’s reactions can be surprisingly encouraging. Ms O'Neill develops characters by starting with an idea and writing a lot of notes, “like small sketches for a larger painting.” Writer’s block? “Push your way through. Inspiration is not always in tune with creation.”
Most importantly, expect and embrace rejection. Lullabies for Little Criminals was rejected many times before being published. “Don’t reject yourself. Let someone else reject you!” she said. “You will get rejected if you are pushing boundaries and doing something new. Rejection feels bad, but just treat it as the flu. You realize it’s part of the human experience and there’s always something better on the other side.”
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Toni TROW Myers'61
Toni TROW Myers'61, a pioneer in the field of IMAX filmmaking, was in attendance for our end-of-the-year Green Carpet celebration.
"Five different technologies took me from here to the edge of the universe," Ms Myers, the honorary guest speaker, told the more than 400 students, employees and parents of prize winners.
With an impressive film career spanning five decades, Ms Myers spoke about her experiences using cutting-edge technology, working with celebrities like John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Tom Cruise, and the production and release of the 3D IMAX film A Beautiful Planet. Ms Myers had the opportunity to train NASA astronauts to help capture the footage in space, while sometimes directing shots from her cellphone back on earth.
We wish to acknowledge this land on which Branksome operates. For thousands of years, it has been the traditional land of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River. Today, this meeting place is still the home to many Indigenous peoples from across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the opportunity to work and go to school on this land.