An experiment in education: Academy of the Impossible
Antonia Zerbisias For real-life couple Jesse Hirsh and Emily Pohl-Weary, game changing is a way of life, and they are...
For real-life couple Jesse Hirsh and Emily Pohl-Weary, game changing is a way of life, and they are proving it at their improbably named Academy of the Impossible.
"The Internet makes us believe that anything is possible," explains Internet strategist Hirsh, 38. "Reality can be depressing. So let's hack reality." For many, "hacking" has come to mean malicious online attacks. But for others it's about rearranging a structure or a system to come up with something newer, better, more effective, more democratic or just plain more fun.
Hirsh, best known as CBC's tech critic, directs guests to the back of his rented Bloor-Lansdowne storefront, with its concrete walls lined with books, art and posters filled with scrawlings of "impossible dreams." Learn Japanese. Publish games. Hack life. At the rear, two dozen young people are arranging chairs into a circle for their weekly Street Writers group. Greeting them is author Pohl-Weary, 39, who, for the past five years, has been helping Parkdale youth express themselves through words spoken, written and sung.
Inspired by the 2006 shooting of her kid brother by a childhood friend � another friend was killed in the incident � Pohl-Weary, who until then had been focused on girls' fiction, turned her attention to inner city boys who couldn't read, and couldn't break out of trouble.
"I thought about what helped me survive, what helped me get through difficult situations when I was that age," she recalls. "And it was reading, it was hiding out in books, it was writing out angry missives in my journal. So I started Street Writers out of that situation."
The program, oversubscribed at its original Parkdale library locale, exceeded all expectations.A That's obvious from a February evening's attendance, where the participants, there to learn from each other, ask the visiting reporter about her writing career.
Other guests have included well-known columnists and bestselling writers, including Susan Musgrave who, last week, left behind some poetry exercises that produced wildly diverse results from the despairing to the LOL-funny. "It's a place where people come to share their thoughts and to learn; the philosophy of each one, teach one," explains Pohl-Weary. "Everyone has an equal voice; everyone can feel safe because the space is a place to learn how to communicate, not just through the writing, but also talking things out." It was Street Writers that inspired the academy, which is pay what you can or don't pay at all.
"We basically tried to bottle the vibe and the sense of being at home," says Pohl-Weary. "How do we find the things that scare us? That seem like impossible dreams? You want to fly? We'll figure out how to fly. You want to become prime minister but have no contacts and are a young person of colour from Scarborough? OK, let's figure this out. What are the things you need? How do we find them together?"
The funding flowed in, from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and other granting organizations. This night's buffet is supplied, as usual, by the Lakeview Diner, whose crew knows what it's like to grow up in Parkdale. "I believed that we had to put a beacon out there and say that we gotta do things differently and that Toronto, being as vibrant as it is, people would rally to us," adds Hirsh.
"It speaks to how there is so much going on in this city that it wasn't difficult for us to basically open doors and have all this great faculty show up and say, 'OK, I'm in, what can I do, what can I teach?' "
More than 2,200 people, including residents of homeless shelters, have come to share knowledge and experience on politics, technology, communications, law, even comedy. Local MP Carolyn Bennett has led a "campaign school" for would-be politicians. The Star's Rick Salutin has talked about revolution. Comedian (and academy faculty member) Dan Speerin has taught podcasting. "I would say explicitly that our motivation for the enterprise is to change the game," maintains Hirsh.
"Traditional educational institutions do not have the freedom to experiment and really understand what's happening. So by creating a new type of independent educational institution, we hope the educational sector would benefit from watching what we do when it comes to how learning as a concept is changing."
- Courtesy: Toronto Star