Now-retired principal would do almost anything to get kids to read

The stuntman


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Tom Chan insists he really did hypnotize the chickens -- they didn't just fall asleep.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/12/2014 (2899 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Tom Chan insists he really did hypnotize the chickens — they didn’t just fall asleep.

He Svengali-ed the birds, like Mandrake gesturing hypnotically, mesmerizing just like hypnotist Reveen — the whole bit was for real.

“I really hypnotized a chicken — I learned it from a farmer,” laughed Chan, the retired principal of River Elm School and the inspiration for tens of millions of pages read by thousands of children.

BORIS MINKEVICH / free press files Tom Chan ate worms - and milked goats and hypnotized chickens - all to get students at River Elm School to read. The longtime principal retired Dec. 19.

Retired principal — that will take some getting used to.

Chan taught for 41 years and had been principal at River Elm since 1993 before he retired Dec. 19.

He hypnotized the three chickens back in June of 1997 at the school barbecue by gently rubbing them under the beak while looking them in the eye and cooing soft words. In doing so, he fulfilled the promise he’d made to kids in the nursery to Grade 6 school in Elmwood if they reached the reading goal Chan had set for them. That was the fourth stunt of what had become an annual ritual begun in 1994 when Chan kissed a pig.

This love of literacy came from a guy who didn’t learn his first word of English in Hong Kong until he was 10, but by his early 20s was teaching English literature to Winnipeg children.

He went to the University of Manitoba, met his future wife, and Winnipeg had itself a teacher.

Most people have heard of Chan because of those stunts every June — but first, pay attention to what Chan recently said in retrospect: “It’s not focused on me. The message is out to the community and the teachers that my focus is literacy.

“I sent a memo home to the parents. When parents read, children see a role model. It’s giving them wings to fly with.

“The idea came from my wife, Debbie,” who’d seen an academic journal article about a U.S. principal. “He was holding up a piglet, and kissing the pig.”

Chan decided to set one million pages of reading as the goal. To put it in context, he stacked one pile of books up in the gym, having counted the pages, and then extrapolated how many stacks would produce a million pages: “One million pages would be an entire gym wall up to my head — I’m five-foot-seven.”

Chan dipped generously into the school grants the Winnipeg School Division provided. “I fund the teachers very generously — every classroom should have a library. There is a take-home reading program.”

And thus, the pig.

Kissing the pig was pretty straightforward. The idea caught on, and pretty soon the kids looked forward to hearing what next June would bring and would eagerly start logging pages to attain ever-increasing reading goals.

Chan milked a goat one year.

“It was a female goat. The farmer brought along a kid — the kid was fighting me” for its mother’s milk, Chan recalled.

“One boy in the audience yelled ‘Drink the milk!’ The whole audience began chanting. It was warm and quite sweet.”

When he dined on night crawlers, Chan practised first.

“I went to a fishing hole (bait shop) on Nairn. I tried it so I wouldn’t gross myself out and throw up. It’s almost like calamari… almost.”

Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press Tom Chan with former students (from left) Elaine Lester, Tabitha Strykiwski, Rachel Manek, Nina Lester and Nicole Shumey (baby Annie's mom). Chan strove to share his passion for reading with kids in his school.

Come on, gross us out.

“I was in a tuxedo, I was (pretending to be) in a high-class restaurant. I fried it with onion and garlic. There’s no taste, it’s the texture.”

Enough — this is venturing into TMI.

There was lassoing one year, Chan on horseback lassoing the chair of the parent council. Keep in mind River Elm’s field isn’t exactly vast open prairie. “It took me three months to learn lassoing from a rancher in Birds Hill. I didn’t know how to stop the horse.”

Another year, he called three ostrich farms. “They all said an ostrich would prefer to stomp a person to death than allow them to ride.”

Llamas were safer.

Chan has just turned 67, and dunk tanks and pies in the face featured in his latter years, though he did shoot baskets with police Chief Devon Clunis. No, Chan didn’t win. That stuff only happens in movies.

Chan’s retirement poster shows him on a motorcycle at what is now the parking lot for the Mantario Trail, just off Highway 312 between Caddy and West Hawk lakes. He’s nothing if not eclectic, a painter who danced ballet when he was younger, a prolific writer who has authored a dozen academic books on education and pedagogy.

“My love is literature, not so much the structure of the language,” he explained.

By the 1980s, he was vice-principal at Tyndall Park and John M. King schools, then principal at Florence Nightingale.

Chan had taught at River Elm, and in 1993, teachers and the parents advisory council convinced him to become principal.

“I have written 12 books in the pedagogy and philosophy of education,” said Chan. He’s writing Roots and Wings, his reflections on education. “What is meant by integrity, honesty, being a global citizen, being kind to each other?”

Now Chan is retired. But guys like Chan don’t really ever stop doing what made them great. “I am a passionate English teacher. My doing a stunt is icing on the cake. If you’ve fallen in love with reading, you’ve already got the gift.”

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