How the line on the CBC became “Home and School Federation also says it's time to look at adding more instructional time for students”

Here’s an interesting and somewhat cautionary tale of how things become “news” in Prince Edward Island.

On Tuesday I attended the launch of Prince Edward Island’s updated school calendar at Spring Park School on behalf of the PEI Home and School Federation. Along with Federation president Pam Montgomery, I represent English parents on the School Calendar Committee, and was invited in that capacity.

After the launch, which was well conducted and communicated the school calendar and the rationale behind it effectively, there was an opportunity for the media to ask questions and interview those present. Pam and I were interviewed by Ryan Ross from The Guardian, and that interview supported the story he published later, where Pam was quoted like this:

For Pam Montgomery, the P.E.I. Home and School Federation’s president, she said her organization had a lot of input in the calendar and expressing parents’ input on maintaining the amount of instructional time.

I think we’ve been very successful in doing that,” she said.

A large part of our interview with Ryan focused on the need to communicate to parents about professional development, about how every home and school meeting should include a discussion of what’s been happening on professional development days, and how it’s important that if we’re going to invest the sacrifice of instructional time in professional development it needs to be high quality and relevant. We obviously didn’t express that forcefully or creatively enough, as it didn’t make it into print.

Later that afternoon, after I’d returned to the office, I got a call from Sara Fraser at CBC. She was having difficulty connecting with Pam to do an on-camera interview and wondered whether I could pinch-hit for her. I agreed, and 30 minutes later Sara was in the basement of my office with a camera operator to do an interview. She cautioned me up front that they were only looking for a short clip, and that I should keep that in mind.

In my interview with Sara I talked, again, about the importance of communicating about professional development to parents, and about some of the challenges that the school calendar committee faced in its deliberations. One of those challenges, I mentioned, was that the structure of the school calendar is limited by two currently-immovable walls: September 1 and June 30, which are the negotiated start and end of the school year for teachers. I suggested that if we really want to get serious about adding instructional time and professional development time to the calendar, we were going to have to address that issue. And that’s the clip that made it to air:

Sara: PEI’s Home and School Federation would like the school year even longer.

Peter: …to really take professional learning and the school calendar out for a ride and get more instructional days and more professional learning days, we’ve got to address that issue and that’s sort of the next hill to climb.

Unfortunately what was missing from the clip was the sentence before in which I explained what “that issue” – the immovable start and end of the school year – was. Without that sentence for context, it seemed like our “message” was dissatisfaction with the school calendar modifications because the school year wasn’t lengthened.

Now, fortunately, the notion that the school year should be longer reflects almost all of the feedback we’ve had from local home and schools on this issue: parents, in general, want their children to be spending more time in the classroom, not less.  So it’s not like I was quoted as saying something untrue or not reflective of parents’ collective feelings.

What has happened next, however is that that comment that went to air has been quoted in another CBC story, held up beside an opposition call for more instructional time that you probably heard on the local news this morning:

The Home and School Federation also says it’s time to look at adding more instructional time for students.

Well, yes, that’s, in essence, what I said. But is it what I meant?

Is it an effective distillation, in a single sentence, of what “parents of PEI feel about the school calendar”?


Presumably this is why people who speak in public take “media training”: to understand that it’s about what you say and don’t say and how you say it that will determine what appears on TV and what the public hears. If I hadn’t made an honest but, in the grander scheme of things, “off message” comment about why making a school calendar is hard, then the CBC headline might have been “Parents say communication is key to implementing school calendar changes.”

Lesson learned.

Oh, and I need a hair cut.

Dzintars Cers: A voice of strength, a voice of reason, a voice of the future

Dzintars Cers has two albums of delightful Latvian-infused progressive rock. This is amazing. That is all. (Go and buy them now: only $7 each).

(The “voice of strength” tagline is from Dzintars’s website, also awesome).

…featuring thoughtful lyrics sung by Cers in his native Latvian tongue.”

Yesterday my brother Steve, initially a Twitter-skeptic and now one of the most prolific twitterers I know, piled on to the #CBCBands hash tag with gusto ( “‘The National’ Research Council Official Time Signal,” “T-Rex Murphy,” “Radio Radio Noon,” etc.). I’m biased, but I’d say he led the pack.

At the end of which brother Johnny dropped in with “I thought it was too much until Dzintar Cers Mix-a-Lot.”

Which answered a long-burning question for me: how do you spell Dzintar Cers (one of the CBC’s best newsreaders and someone I’ve woken up to on the clock radio hundreds of times).

Which, in that rabbit-holey Internet way, eventually led me to this description, from Toronto’s Eye Weekly from 1998, of a Dzintar Cers side-project called Dzena’s Initiation:

This is what happens when you let one CBC sportscaster (Dzintar Cers) and one nutty freelance performance artist (Nina Hilger) loose in a digital portastudio with a computer music-generating program. He plays (in a prog-rock meets techno kind of way) and she rants. This goes on for over two hours. Occasionally Cers’ brother Aldis provides some wild acid-rock guitar. Song titles include “Nuclear Marionette’s Dinner Party,” “Mother Dominatrix” (the S&M crossover hit single) and, my fave, “India Nomo,” featuring thoughtful lyrics sung by Cers in his native Latvian tongue.

If the universe is just, someone will find a copy of this and send it to me. Right now.

Hacking Stuart McLean

The Vinyl Cafe is a much-beloved long-running CBC Radio programme hosted by Stuart McLean. The heart of each episode are the “Dave and Morley stories,” tales of a fictional Canadian family and their misadventures. And the stories are – quintessentially – Canadian, filled with the kind of wry self-deprecating humour that is at the heart of our national psyche.

Stuart McLean’s telling of the stories is also quintessentially, well, Stuart McLean, filled with expectant pauses and told with a masterful sense of comic timing. So much so that for years I thought that Dave and Morley were real, only to have the wool pulled away from my eyes by my brother; I emailed McLean to complain, and he replied, kindly, with a wink and an apology.

Those pauses: they are epic. Almost a character in the story themselves.

Here, for example, is a 14 second snippet of the Gabby Dubois episode that aired a few weeks ago:

Just look at that waveform: signature Stuart McLean.

Indeed here’s the same snippet, but with the pauses hand-edited out; you lose 4 seconds (30%) of the clip in the process, and much of the impact:

Listening to an episode of the show this weekend, I realized that those pauses were a key to hacking the Vinyl Cafe: if I could split a Dave and Morley story into chunks by splitting on the pauses I could then remix the story into, well, whatever I wanted. Fortunately the open source toolkit was chock full of tools to make this surprisingly easy on my Mac. Here’s how I did it.

Chop out Dave and Morley

From the Vinyl Cafe podcast feed I downloaded an episode of the show, the same Gabby Duboid episode I took the snippets from above. I then used Audacity to locate and copy-and-paste the Dave and Morley story into a new file, and saved this as an MP3, which I called gabby-dubois.mp3.

Split on Silence

To split the story into chunks based on silence I used the mp3splt program, like this:

mkdir silence
mp3splt -d silence -s gabby-dubois.mp3

The result was the new silence directory filled with 326 small MP3 files, each a chunk of the story.

Glue Together at Random

The opposite of mp3splt is mp3wrap, which glues MP3 files together from the command line. I decided that it would be interesting to take the 326 small chunks of the Gabby Dubois story and randomly stick them back together to make an entirely new story. I did this like this:

cd silence
mp3wrap ../gabby-dubois-random.mp3 \
`ls | \
perl -MList::Util=shuffle -e 'print shuffle(<STDIN>);' | \
tail -n 255 | \
tr '\n' ' '`

This sequence of commands has the effect of doing the following:

  1. Listing all the files in the silence directory.
  2. Sorting this list into random order (using Perl).
  3. Taking the last 255 randomly shuffled files (because mp3wrap has a limit of 255 files).
  4. Stripped out the carriage returns at the end of each file.
  5. Feeding the result as the list of files to combined to mp3wrap, with the resulting combined file called gabby-dubois-random.mp3.

The Nonsensical Result

Here is the nonsensical result, which sounds somewhat otherworldly because there’s little convey to that it’s not an actual story other than that it doesn’t make any sense. The pauses are still there, which is why it works as well as it does. Listening to it I find that my brain strains very hard to make sense of what’s happening. But it can’t.

Spark on Digital Books in Libraries

Remember my travails with trying to borrow and then return a digital audiobook about learning Norwegian? Well in late February I recorded a short interview with CBC’s Nora Young about my experience, and CBC Spark has incorporated this into the introduction to a panel discussion about ebooks and libraries that’s a compelling listen:

My favourite quote from my chat with Nora, if I don’t say so myself, is “I don’t know what the answer is, but I gotta imagine that there’s a better way to deal with all this than prohibiting people on PEI from learning Norwegian for 21 days.” The panel that follows has thought much more deeply about these issues than I; it was good to heard the broader context.