A Garden Gate Summer Note on Teaching and the First Days of School

Summertime has come and passed–at least here in Prince Edward Island. Island folk wisdom has it that summers break on the weekend of the Gold Cup & Saucer race in mid-August. How global weather patterns know about a two-minute horserace on our little Island remains somewhat of a mystery. Contrary to folk wisdom about folk wisdom, the estimation continues to be true. Once again this year, we could feel the weather tilting at the end of the Gold Cup & Saucer Parade and the Exhibition. Though brilliantly warm days have continued through August and into September, the cool nights and evening breezes began right on queue.

Although the PEI weather is more variable in Fall–with spells of rain, threats of frost, and the occasional post-tropical storm–we generally have gorgeous Septembers and Octobers. Muggy heat softens into autumnal warmth. The leaves burst into colour while sunny days find their way into gorgeous dusks and stolen moments around campfires and on decks. As a child, I loved the poetry of the phrase “Indian Summer” to describe this reprieve from the dying year–the surprising second-blessing summer we cannot always count on, a gift of warmth that buoys the spirit. I doubt the phrase “Indian Summer” always had the warmth and appreciation I gave it as a child, but I have yet to find a good replacement. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes some other names related to feast days. “St. Luke’s Summer” (Oct 18th) has a nice ring to it–as does the French “été de la Saint-Martin” (Nov. 11th) and the English “All-Hallows summer” (Nov 1st). Canada is a bit thin on saint days, and Oct 18th would be unusually late for a PEI little summer. 

In my search for the right word, I have begun calling these autumnal warm periods “Garden Gate Summers.” I doubt that phrase will catch on very quickly. In any case, when some local Island celebrity announces the last call to the post at the racetrack in mid-August, our world shifts toward Fall–though a little bit of summer tends to linger at the garden gate.

As an agricultural province, Fall is a harvest time in PEI–and my garden is in some need of attention. As a household of teachers and students, it also means the first days of school. Yesterday, my wife had her first day welcoming a new batch of Kindergarten students. I am a good teacher, and have even won an award. However, my wife is a genius in what she does–taking a gaggle of wide-eyed pre-schoolers and shaping them into reading, writing, sharing, self-regulating, idea-generating, curiosity-driven first graders. It is sweet to watch the little gaffers show up for their first experiences of scholarship with giant bookbags, bulging lunch bags, and nervous grins.

Kerry’s first day this year was a bittersweet one. It was the first time that Kerry has begun a year teaching at Immanuel Christian School without our son, Nicolas. Kerry began Kindergarten teaching as Nicolas entered first grade. Now our wee little punk has graduated–winning the school’s Music Award and the Governor General’s Medal, I might add–and has landed a spot in the School of Performing Arts (SOPA) at Holland College (on the campus where L.M. Montgomery studied). Yesterday was Nicolas’ first first day of school–a pretty classic local college Orientation Day. All week will be a series of first days for various parts of the program, and he will begin the normal schedule on his journey to rock fame on Monday.

We are thrilled to have Nicolas nearby (and at home) for school, but SOPA is a feeder program for Berklee College of Music in Boston–which seems very much farther away. We’ll deal with those first and last days when they come!

This term, I am thrilled to be appointed once again as an Assistant Professor in Applied Communication, Leadership, and Culture (ACLC) at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI). My first first day ever in the ACLC program was last January–and you can click here to read about that program and the new course I developed, “C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: Leadership, Communication, and Culture” (which, by the way, was one of my favourite teaching experiences ever). ACLC is a digitally engaged, applied arts program that helps students design their learning path by using a classical Liberal Arts foundation to make meaningful connections to the worlds of work and community.

Honestly, I love early September days on our beautiful hill-top UPEI campus. I love seeing new students arrive on campus, excited and nervous and wearing clothes that are a little new and a little nice, but not ostentatiously so. I love seeing students and faculty milling around the heritage quad, filling up the Fox & Crow, and spilling into the library that we have outgrown some years ago. I love seeing students wander through the halls, trying to match the information on their phones to the rather idiosyncratic numbering systems of our buildings–most of which are leftover from the days of St. Dunstan’s University, a Catholic Liberal Arts college that began as a seminary. I love walking into a new classroom, picking up a marker, and writing my name and class information on the whiteboard. I even enjoy the fact that every year, no matter how well-prepared they are, upon seeing my name and class title on the whiteboard, one or two students will pop up out of their seats with a gasp and hurry to the room where they are actually supposed to be.

I just love first days!

Like Nicolas, my first first day this Fall was yesterday’s New Student Orientation (NSO). It was a gorgeous day–perfect for the launch of a new term. As I walked through the heritage quad, I couldn’t help thinking that the student-scape before me looked as if it was the set of a Hollywood college film. Students were milling around, chatting and taking pictures and connecting with professors. There was a relatively mild game of croquet on the lawn, while students in NSO shirts used the walking path as the “net” for a game of outdoor badminton (with very little damage to the walkers, as far as I could tell). There were improvised games of soccer and frisbee, groups of students trundling along behind guides, and circles of students sunning on the lawn. Teams of profs and students had gathered for a dodgeball competition–with the added challenges of mature trees on the court. There was a drum circle next to the tipi that UPEI set up to launch the foundation-year “Indigenous Teachings” course–including a welcome by local Mi’kmaq folk and leaders of the new Faculty of Indigenous Knowledge, Education, Research, and Applied Studies. I loved the energy of the whole day.

Today I am putting the final touches on my lectures for my second first day–the first sessions of “Digital Literacy.” This first-year course trains students how to evaluate, integrate, and communicate information safely, effectively, and ethically within our many digital worlds of work, study, and social media. We will learn to think about what online and virtual engagement really is, rather than just receive our web-connected realities passively. “Digital Literacy” also has a significant design focus, where we learn about choosing the right tools for the right job–with a focus on digital storytelling, photography, videography, and data visualization. Because of the size of the class, I’ve broken the students up into two cohorts for their live tutorials. Today we will be talking about gender and the “hey guys!” phenomenon of Youtube and Tik Tok, and do a short critical thinking exercise about a tragedy that is underway here in Canada at this moment.

Tomorrow will be my third first day as I teach two other new-to-me courses. In ACLC, we have developed a trilogy of courses called “Putting Arts to Work.” In each of these course, we learn the history, purpose, and uses of a Liberal Arts education, and consider why it is worthwhile to study the Liberal Arts in a university environment that seems so job-focused. With a foundation in key Liberal Arts concepts like curiosity, empathy, ethics, storytelling, and core skills development, we help students shape their skills in communication, leadership, and cultural analysis. As a major, ACLC pairs well with another major or minor–disciplines of Literature and Religious Studies like mine, but we have ACLC students who also specialize in History, Sociology (and sometimes Anthropology), Psychology, Environmental Studies, Business disciplines like Marketing and Entrepreneurship, and quite a few from Diversity and Social Justice Studies. I have yet to teach a Physics student in the program, but I remain hopeful!

Last Winter, I taught the middle course in this three-pack. This Fall I am teaching the Putting Arts to Work cornerstone and capstone courses. As part of establishing the foundation for understanding the Liberal Arts, the first-year curriculum uses C.S. LewisThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I will use some Narnian close readings to talk about Liberal Arts concepts like Appreciation, Joy, Beauty, Pleasure, Happiness, and Curiosity, and to enhance conversations about History, Theory, and Disciplinarity. In the capstone seminar, we guide students in assessing their entire experience as students (portfolio development, skills self-assessment, etc.) as a preparation for their post-graduation adventures of work and citizenship. There is also a large section on project management, and a current of marketing techniques runs throughout the course (directed toward self-presentation). The ACLC Putting Arts to Work curriculum is an extremely effective program.

I am a gig teacher and so I am a generalist by trade–even if my PhD was highly specialized. Since I began teaching in 2006, I have taught more than 100 university courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. These include courses in my disciplines, Literature and Religious Studies–sometimes one or the other, and sometimes as an RS/Lit interdisciplinary study–at UPEI and at schools like Signum University, Regent College, The King’s College (New York City), Maritime Christian College (here in PEI), and the Atlantic School of Theology. Beyond specialty-focussed courses, I have also taught interdisciplinary and applied courses in Mythology and Folklore, Popular Culture and Film, Philosophy, History, Asian Studies, Global Issues, Inquiry Studies, Oral Communications, Leadership, and Languages (contemporary English and koine/biblical Greek). ACLC allows me to highlight my love of using key ideas in the classroom to make meaningful connections to history, language, literature, and culture.

However, ACLC is unique in the way that it integrates my other work experience that sits outside the academy. My work in government consultation and policy writing, my experience in non-profit leadership, my years as a camp and youth director, my training as a church leader and public speaker, my minor (but not insignificant) contribution to the arts and entertainment community, my popular writing (including A Pilgrim in Narnia), my social media portfolio, and my years as a small-business owner (including the ultimate failure of one of those businesses)–every part of my CV is included in my teaching in ACLC.

Can you tell I am excited for my first days this Fall?

Not everything is as beautiful as a snapshot of the heritage quad on Orientation Day or my buoyant course outlines. I am intensely superbly, dramatically busy–designing and preparing to teach three new courses just as a manuscript deadline passes and a grant application deadline looms. I really do not have time for a breath in my schedule until Christmas–and then only a quick one. I have had to say “no” to awesome speaking engagements and teaching opportunities, and I may miss nearby events this Fall (like New England Moot, just a 10-hour drive away). It has been hard to find time to write up my ideas for A Pilgrim In Narnia–or even edit the great guest pieces in the queue for the Fall. I have 500+ unread emails and a couple of dozen things on my “Do This Now Before You Take Your Next Breath” list. If I owe you an email or have stranded a connection on social media, I do apologize. Send me a follow-up note on the 22nd and I’ll try to set that straight before September ends. Good things often crowd themselves together like this–at least in my experience.

As much as I enjoy these first days on campus, now for the moment, I must set aside frisbees and fresh grass beneath my feet for a few hours of work on syllabi, spreadsheets, and slides. I have eager young minds to shape!

In reflection, I think these September first days help me avoid that feeling of the autumnal death of the year–the loss of light, the retreat indoors, the browning of fields and lawns, the Fall into Winter. In my case, part of the special loveliness of the Garden Gate Summer is not just how sometimes summer wants to linger around the hedge. A Garden Gate Summer is, for me, also the welcoming in of new people and ideas and experiences. It seems to me a lovely way to spend a season.

Note: The pictures are from UPEI’s stock photo library (which saved me having to get student permission for pictures), except the SOPA garage pick, which is from CBC.

In my long unread email list, am fielding quite a number of requests for writing and free speaking, as well as questions about “the book”. You can email me at junkola[at]gmail[dot]com. However, I am not taking bookings for free academic or artistic contributions until mid-2024–though I will be doing some events for the book launch (hopefully late 2023).  

And this is Nicolas with a song he wrote and recorded with his high school band, Moment of Eclipse, back in 2020, video directed by William Wright.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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12 Responses to A Garden Gate Summer Note on Teaching and the First Days of School

  1. robstroud says:

    Blessings as the new year launches. The eloquence of your description almost makes me feel as though I was visiting you at your campus!


  2. Fascinating post!!! You put me “there”… Carolyn Curtis


  3. danaames says:

    I always loved the start of school in the Fall as a student. I appreciate all the experience that has gone into making you a good teacher; I know I’ve benefited from all that simply reading this blog, and I’m glad I found it all those many years ago.

    I’m especially happy to hear you’re able to promote the Liberal Arts. There is so much emphasis on STEM courses these days (but you have to know how to think and have some idea of the ethics of investigation), and on the “other side” there are ideologies out there that want to hijack the Liberal Arts and take them on journeys they were meant to help us get beyond. Good for you.

    I hope you (and Kerry) have good students this year. I know you will make a difference for them. And I do know what it’s like to begin college-level music training – so exciting in so many ways! My parish priest and the younger of his sons both graduated from Berklee (Jazz Guitar).



    • Thanks Dana, this is nice. As a kid, I loved having a new thing at the start of a new year: a pencil case, a new pack of crayons, a new binder. It always gave me hope that I could start anew. Perhaps I should resurrect the ritual.
      I have been a “Liberal Arts” promotor/evangelist/student/discoverer for quite some time now. I find the history rich, and I fell that the ways of thinking make a great foundation for young adult learning. We do “bend” the Liberal Arts in this program, in that we connect them with modes of learning today, and teach students how to link tradition LA values and modes of thinking with their other students and future work. But I don’t think we coopt the Liberal Arts, or lose those links back to the traditional seven.
      Ah yes, Berklee! How do Americans afford to go to school? Stuns me, the cost. With academic bursaries, community volunteer bursaries, and discipline skills bursaries, Nicolas got much of his tuition covered–and I’m not certain he even got a “scholarship” in any traditional sense. But the American level of cost of undergraduate education is stunning.


  4. Irina says:

    We (Netherlands) have “Sint-Michielszomertje” (St Michael’s little summer) at the end of September.


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