The gift of learning

Here is a letter that my friend Graham Watt sent to our local paper, and one that I would like to share, with Graham’s permission:

How often do we run into someone who has the power to change lives for the better? Someone with a simple take on life and especially the teaching of learning.

I would say not often, especially in this manic time of cell phones that take pictures and computers in schools purpoted to solve the youth learning dilemma.

But this spring and summer, Stephen Haff, now a Crake Fellow at Mount Allison, came in and very simply changed some young lives for the better.

Through the continuing benevolence of the Live Bait Theatre Company , Stephen ran two wonderful drama workshops for young people. Not workshops to learn drama, workshops using drama to learn.

Teens and pre-teens worked together, all equals, visiting elderly Sackville people, listening to their life stories, learning of their lives, and then, together, taking these stories and re-telling them in the context of their own young lives.

Stephen Haff is an educational activist, an agent provocateur, and his insurgents are the young and restless kids who want to know that there’s more to life than copying trendy styles.

He seems to have little time for the trappings, propos and visual effects which are so prevalent in our visually-obsessed culture that they’ve become the culture.

Instead he believes in simple storytelling wonder, the importance of relationships, and especially the vast and unacknowledged potential of each and every young person to thrive.

Stephen Haff, a Mount Allison grad, went on to a Masters degree in English at Yale then plunged himself into one of the most violent ghetto schools in New York, where murders and stabbings replace simple bullying (of 600 students just 60 would graduate).

Such a high level of waste of human sensitivity and potential gave him a gift of his own, a realization that within each child exists a need to belong, and to be confident enough to love others.

None of this would have come to our little Sackville without the foresight and courage of Charlie Rhindress and Live Bait to provide and encourage it.

At the same time, Live Bait brought together another talented group of younger actors from seven to 11 years old to strut their stuff in a wonderfully entertaining and very funny play.

So we were exposed not only to the considerable natural talent of our local children, but the opening of young minds to life itself.

Alas Stephen Haff is leaving Sackville for a private school position in Halifax. Let’s hope he can return to continue spreading the gift of learning.

Our son acted in four productions that Stephen directed over the past year, and during that time we watched as a boy became a young man. As one learning activist to another, thank you, Stephen.

Stephen showed us what can happen when we reverse the teaching model and allow people to become responsible for their own learning. In his address to parents and friends after one production, Stephen allowed as to how the final product was not important, as it was the process of problem-solving through drama that helped the actors to grow. The final production was just one more problem-solving excercise. Or to put it another way, the voyage is the destination.

Stephen Haff’s vision is evident on his website,, and he has left us another initiative, the Reciprocal Learning Network, that I hope to incorporate into our town commons.

Here is a picture of Stephen as Leontes, from A Winter’s Tale. Note the emphasis on intricate period-specific costumes 😉


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