Monday, August 4, 2014

"How to prepare your kids for the social pressure cooker of camp" (or why I don't send my kids to camp)

I first came across the article, "How to prepare your kids for the social pressure cooker of camp," in the June issue of the North Toronto Post. I tried to comment but wasn't able to do so without a Facebook account. (The article irritated me, but not enough to induce me to join Facebook.) After a bit of online sleuthing, I found the same article on a certain overnight camp's website: it so happens that the article's author, who is a renowned restaurant critic in Toronto, is also the director of the "certain camp" in question. The article was cross-posted by the director herself to the camp's blog, and comments were—ostensibly—welcome. So I left a comment. A mildly critical comment. And then one day, out of curiosity, I revisited the camp website, only to find that the comment had been removed. I suppose its removal is not all that surprising. After all, parents who have thrown their kids into the camp's "social pressure cooker," in some cases for weeks on end, would be the people most likely to read the comment. But would it be a terrible thing to open up a true dialogue about the way kids' camps are structured and run? Would it be a terrible thing to question why we assume that "social pressure cooker" boot camps are good for kids?

This is the comment I left:
So why not schedule in some downtime? Why would I want to send my eight-year-old into a "hyper-stimulating,​" "high octane social pressure cooker"? What sane parent would? This description strikes me as encapsulating everything that is wrong with camp these days. Where is the camp for kids who want to enjoy nature, make friends, and have fun, but aren't interested in being "hyper-stimulated"?

(See also Camp Keep-Me-Busy)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Monday, March 17, 2014

That Was Then, This is Now

The other day I was in a hair salon, and I got to chatting with a woman who was accompanying her elderly mother to her weekly hair appointment. The woman mentioned that she was a math teacher at a high school not far from the one my daughters attend, a school with a similar upper-middle class demographic. Since the teaching of math is an interest of mine, and the PISA results had just been released, I tried to engage her in conversation about the so-called "math wars" and the post-PISA hand-wringing about math scores in the province. She seemed oddly uninterested (for a math teacher) in any of those issues. Instead, she wanted to know where my kids went to school, who their teachers were, etc. She then proceeded to tell me an anecdote that seemed designed to let me know how lucky my kids are to be attending their particular secondary school.

She had no children of her own, she said, but her sister has two kids, now in university. After divorcing her husband, her sister wanted desperately to get her kids out of their current catchment area, and into the one which includes my daughters' school. Post-divorce, her sister could not afford to buy a house in our area, so she rented an apartment—much smaller than the house from which she'd come, the woman noted—to ensure that her children could attend my daughters' high school, X Collegiate Institute.

Why, I asked her, was her sister so keen to move into our neighbourhood, given that the high school in her old area has an excellent reputation and very high EQAO scores? The woman lowered her voice and said, conspiratorially, "My niece and nephew didn't feel comfortable there. There were too many, you know, Asians and Jews." I looked at her blankly; my mouth may have fallen open. "Mainly the Asians," she added, apparently hedging her bets. 

"The kids were uncomfortable," I asked? "Or your sister?" 

"No, the kids, definitely. So they moved into the apartment and went to X Collegiate Institute; they both ended up getting into the university of their choice, and they're doing great now."

I was trying to think of something to say, but I was tongue-tied because I was in a kind of shock at this display of racism, unexpectedly blatant even for our neighbourhood, which is perhaps the last bastion of homogeneity in Toronto (though, even it is changing—for the better). 

In any case, the woman did not give me a chance; she continued with another shocker: "At first my sister was worried, because around that time, they had just enlarged the catchment area for X Collegiate Institute to include an area of public housing. So a lot of black kids and gangs started attending. But the numbers weren't enough to make a difference."

I mumbled something about how I think X Collegiate Institute needs more not less diversity, then hastily made my exit from the salon. 

There is so much that troubled—and continues to trouble—me about this incident that I hardly know where to start. This woman appeared to be my age, and she lives in one of the most diverse cities in North America. And she is a teacher. That is perhaps the most troubling aspect. It is disturbing, to say the least, to contemplate the preconceptions about kids of colour—about any kid who is not as bleached and blue-eyed as she is—that this teacher brings into the classroom every single day. 

The whole episode got me thinking about the expression of racism today, versus when I was a kid. Is it really so different now, despite all the current talk of post-racism or post-racial societies? A recent study shows that of 3200 books for children published in in the US in 2013, 93 were about black people. And then there are incidents like this one described by my Twitter friend Sarah Carmichael (@sarahcasm). Sadly, the kinds of racist inferences (and interference) by strangers that Sarah describes in her post are not anomalies in the lives of bi-racial families. 

A while ago, I wrote a post about the ways in which racism manifests itself in my daughters' world. More recently, I wrote an essay* for an online journal, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, about the forms racism took while I was growing up. Sadly, I think that when it comes to racism then and now, the only valid conclusion one can draw is "Plus ça change . . . ."


*I am not entirely comfortable with the title of this piece, which was suggested to me by a person who thought its very provocativeness was part of the point I was making. I'm still considering changing it, though my previous title "Do You Have Anything Else to Say?" is risibly lame.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Answers to Government Survey, Part 5 (Questions 6 and 7): Technology and Partnerships

Here is my answer to Questions 6 and 7 of the government survey on the future of education in Ontario. (For an explanation of the survey, and the public consultation process of which it is a part, see here.)

Question 6: How can we use technology more effectively in teaching and learning? 

I think technology is a bit of a red herring in the debates about the future of schooling. Systems that do very well internationally (such as Finland's) are quite low-tech. I'm not anti-technology, but given the expense of introducing new educational technologies, we should keep a close eye on the evidence of their effectiveness. Often there is none. I'm also concerned about the corporatization of schools that the introduction of technology makes possible (or perhaps inevitable). After all, no one stands to gain more from schools' wholesale adoption of technology-reliant pedagogy than huge tech companies. The question is, what will the students gain and at what expense?




Question 7: In summary, what are the various opportunities for partnership that can enhance the student experience, and how can they benefit parents, educators and our partners too?

 I can’t be certain, but I suspect that by “partnerships,” the writers of this question mean corporate partnerships. If that is the case, my position is that there should be no partnerships with schools. Corporations are in the business of making money; schools are public spheres where we set aside the money-making goals of the surrounding corporate world so that our children can be educated, as opposed to trained.  (Let the corporations train their own employees—why should taxpayers foot the bill for such training?) I think if politicians and administrators keep in mind this essential distinction between education and training when making curricular and other policy decisions, education in Ontario would start to move in the right direction. The title of this consultation project is From Great to Excellent, but nowhere is “excellence” defined. For me, an “excellent” education system is not one that trains excellent corporate employees, but rather one that educates future free-thinking citizens. Maybe hoping for a truly “excellent” education system is a bit utopian, but I’d choose utopian over Orwellian any day.



Monday, October 28, 2013

Answers to Government Survey, Part 4: Student Engagement (Question 5)

Here is my answer to Question 5 of the government survey on the future of education in Ontario. (For an explanation of the survey, and the public consultation process of which it is a part, see here.)


Question 5: What more can we all do to keep students engaged, foster their curiosity and creativity, and help them develop a love of life-long learning?

I’m not sure how we can keep students engaged, when we haven’t actually engaged them in the first place. Part of the reason schools fail to engage kids is that school isn’t really about kids. Kids in our current educational system are viewed as a means to whatever social end adults in power (within ministries of education and in the corporations that have policy-makers’ ears) have deemed appropriate and necessary. At the moment, kids in this country are burdened with task of learning the skills that will (we hope) enable Canada to remain competitive in the global economy. In our anxiety over whether the next generation is acquiring these skills—STEM skills, in particular—we subject students to near constant measuring and testing; after all, we need to make sure they’re keeping up their end of the social bargain to which they never consented!

True engagement cannot occur until we stop treating kids in this instrumental way—until we stop treating childhood and adolescence as merely preparation for a specific type of adulthood, rather than as its own phase of life, worthy of its own goals and desires. If we were to do that (which is a huge “if,” I realize), we would begin to see that the question should not be “how do we engage kids” but rather “how do we provide the conditions that would allow kids to self-engage”?

I don’t pretend to know the answer to such an admittedly abstract question, but I do think it’s pretty clear that engagement, creativity and a love of lifelong learning are unlikely to be fostered in an educational system that deprives kids of all power. Coercion and engagement would seem to me to be incompatible processes. So on a practical level, maybe we can move towards allowing kids to self-engage by giving them some power over their own schooling. We could begin by taking small steps towards democratizing schools: for example, we could solicit students’ opinions and involve them in decision-making, not only about how school is run, but also about the content of the curriculum and the means (or necessity) of evaluation.* Only when students are given at least partial control over their learning will they be able to figure out their true interests, and only when they are truly interested will they be able to self-engage.

Of course, just as coercion is incompatible with genuine engagement, genuine engagement on the part of kids may be incompatible with a society’s social and economic expectations of education. And therein lies the intractable paradox at the heart of any project of progressive education reform (of which this Great to Excellent survey is an example): it may be that individual traits like “creativity” or the kind of curiosity that leads to engagement and “life-long learning” cannot be readily harnessed to serve non-individual, socio-economic goals.

Nonetheless, it's important to at least begin the conversation about how to change school environments so as to allow for the possibility of kids discovering their true interests and passions. The alternative is to keep treating students as a means to an end, which will not only continue to demoralize them (and ruin their childhoods), but is pretty much guaranteed not to produce the adaptable twenty-first century learners and workers that governments dream of. If you insist that kids be sheep, you will end up with . . . adult sheep. I'm not sure how interested in lifelong learning sheep are. I could be underestimating them.

*Or we could turn the evaluation tables around by, for example, making course evaluations in elementary and secondary school mandatory.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Answers To Government Survey, Part 3: Equity and Full-day Kindergarten

Here are my answers to Questions 3 and 4 of the government survey on the future of education in Ontario. (For an explanation of the survey, and the public consultation process of which it is a part, see here.)


Question 3: From your perspective, what further opportunities exist to close gaps and increase equity to support all children and students in reaching their full potential?

Homework is also part of the answer to this question. (See my response to Question 2 for more about homework.) Consider that, starting in the early grades, a child who has support at home to help him or her navigate the vast amounts of often age-inappropriate homework (i.e., homework that requires an adult's input) is at an academic advantage. And when, with a parent's help, such a child begins to do well on assignments, he or she gains confidence, which then fuels more success. So what might start out as a small advantage is amplified as the child progresses through the grades, by virtue of the boost to self-confidence and cognitive development that parental support provides. For this reason, homework is as much an equity issue as it is an issue of student well-being. A level playing field requires that kids be able to succeed in school without a great deal of family support, for the simple reason that not all kids have it.

Another phenomenon to consider is "streaming," which occurs in our officially non-streaming system through the back door—i.e., via "special" programs like French Immersion and "gifted" programs. We should keep in mind that Finland's system has managed to close achievement gaps based on economic background by focussing on supporting all students in regular classes—no "gifted" classes or special programs, but a lot of local flexibility with respect to how schools are run and how curricula are implemented. We could take a page out of the Finnish book on this subject.* (Oh, and Finnish kids have very little homework, even in high school!)


Question 4: How does the education system need to evolve as a result of changes to child care and the implementation of full-day kindergarten?

I don't know. I’m not sure I support full-day kindergarten for all kids because I think it can be exhausting for four- and five-year-olds to be in school all day, even in so-called play-based kindergarten classes. If we had an adequate, fully subsidized day care system—like Québec’s, for instance—would we need full-day kindergarten? Why confuse education and daycare? (And maybe consider bringing back naps in kindergarten. I remember quite enjoying the naps.)


*There actually is a book on this subject and many other facets of the Finnish education system: Finnish Lessons, by Pasi Sahlberg.

(See also my answers to questions 1 and 2 of the survey here and here.)