Monday, June 27, 2011

Real-Life Problems and How to Solve Them: Grad

Recently my daughter, J, has taken to writing an advice column—she calls it Real-life Problems and How to Solve Them—modelled on those she has seen in kids' magazines. She writes both questions and answers, and one particular question—specifically, the answer she composed—caught my eye. It has to do with the numerous, over-the-top events and celebrations taking place this week for her class's grade six graduation. Although J is looking forward to these events, her twin sister, E—who is the kind of introvert that schools routinely overlook and can easily crush—is not. J's advice is clearly directed towards her sister. It is not bad advice.

Q: Everyone at my school is looking forward to the graduation festivities but me. They're always talking about the dresses and shoes they are planning to wear, but I don't even want to go. I know my friends will think I'm crazy, but I really want to just stay at home and read a book. — Ella, age 11

A: Dear Ella — You know if you really want to go or not. And the decision about going is all up to you. Don't let anyone influence you while making your decision because if you end up going and having a bad time, you won't have a very good memory of your grade six graduation. Tell your friends to take pictures and describe the time they had so you don't feel completely left out, but don't worry if they start talking about how cool it was in front of you. The great time they had might have been the worst time you had. But whatever you do, let your memory of your last days of grade six be a good one. Good luck.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Smells Like School Spirit

What the bourgeoisie has installed as its number-one, i.e. as its dominant ideological State apparatus, is the educational apparatus, which has in fact replaced in its functions the previously dominant ideological State apparatus, the Church. Louis Althusser

The other day, my daughter, E, woke up in a foul mood. She muttered something about it being the worst day of her life, then sullenly took her place at the breakfast table. She said she didn't want to go to school, but when my husband and I asked why, she was reluctant to to tell us. Finally, after some cajoling, she told us the reason: it was pajama day at school. E said the kids had been told to wear their pajamas to show school spirit. "How does wearing pajamas at school show school spirit?" she asked. "And why do we have to show it, anyway?"

Good questions.

The official character education program at my daughters' school, Future Aces, is fairly innocuous. According to the program's website, the "Aces" part of the name is an acronym for:

A Attitude, Ability, Action, Achieve
Co-operation, Courage, Confidence
Empathy, Example, Education
At our school, these character traits or behavioral goals are inculcated by means of monthly assemblies in which students perform sketches or sing songs about the attribute of the month. As character education programs go, it is relatively harmless (especially compared to programs such as PBIS, which Chris Liebig has blogged about over at A Blog About School), but it also seems to have little effect on the kids, who can regularly be seen yawning and squirming during the assemblies.

There is, however, a parallel, less innocuous character education program in effect at my daughters' school, one that is part of what has been called the "hidden curriculum." It involves regular exhortations to school spirit in the form of specially designated "spirit days," house colour days (in this, our semi-private school has taken a page from private schools) and, yes, pajama days.

The dictionary lists as one of the many possible meanings of the word "spirit," "enthusiastic loyalty (school spirit)." Most people would argue that enthusiastic loyalty to one's school, like loyalty to one's favourite sports team, is not in itself a bad thing. And the truth is, there are aspects of my daughters' school about which one could imagine both kids and parents being enthusiastic. (Its wonderful music program is one of them.) But the enthusiasm being encouraged by spirit days is not a considered enthusiasm; it is not a reasoned response to anything tangible. In fact, what is being exhorted (coerced, some might say) through spirit days is the kind of blind, general enthusiasm that precludes thought, or at least renders it superfluous: my school right or wrong. As such, spirit days are inimical to the school's stated goal of fostering independent, critical thinking. A more cynical person might even argue that spirit days constitute the principal means by which schools carry out their ideological function: in Althusserian terms, such events "interpellate" or "hail" children who, by responding appropriately—i.e, with appropriate unthinking enthusiasm—aid in their own construction as subjects (in this case, as proper, conformist school-children).

Yes, I know, it's only spirit day or pajama day or colour day. It is quite possible—probable, even— that I am investing these events with too much meaning. But if they have no meaning, serve no deeper purpose, why do schools persist in proclaiming such days on a regular basis?

Perhaps it's time for progressive educators and parents to think about alternatives to spirit days or, rather, to ask themselves what an alternative, more meaningful spirit day might look like. I don't have any definitive answers, but I can conceive of assemblies in which children would be encouraged to articulate reasons for their "enthusiasm" for their school, as well as reasons why they might not be enthusiastic. Too often teachers and parents solicit only the pre-conceived, positive responses they want from children, rather than being sincerely interested in hearing their views. An alternative "school spirit" would not be so far away in meaning or import from the kind of "spirit" that all schools claim to be interested in nourishing: the spirit of free and open inquiry.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

By Our Fruits Our Children Shall Know Us

A slightly different version of this piece was published in the Globe and Mail a couple of years ago. I was reminded of it recently when I bit into a sour, over-sized strawberry.

One thing has always puzzled me about my kids: They prefer vegetables to fruit. They willingly chow down on green beans, broccoli, asparagus, peas and cauliflower, salads of all types, carrots and cucumbers. But they look askance at the apples, oranges, berries and melons that I doggedly place in front of them. "It doesn't taste good " is their constant refrain. To me it tastes ... acceptable.

Perhaps I do understand why my twin daughters don't like fruit: Most of it is tasteless. Vegetables may be tasteless too, but my children's expectations of them are lower and, like most parents, I dress veggies up with vinaigrettes or butter and salt to render them more palatable. But fruit is supposed to taste good as is. As an adult, I'm used to the fact that most of the time it does not. My children, who possess the enhanced taste buds of eight-year-olds, have not yet become accustomed to flavourless berries and melons.

I wonder, then, why did I love fruit so much as a child? My parents were particular about their produce. Every Saturday, they shopped at the local Dominion for basics, but made a separate trip to stand-alone markets to buy fruits and vegetables. Even as a young child, I had a sense of seasonality, passed on from my parents. There were berries in spring and summer, along with pert plums, succulent peaches, and sweet and sour cherries from Ontario. Summer fruit, my parents called these. In the fall, we had bushels of russet and Macintosh apples. In winter, there were navel oranges and tart-sweet, white grapefruit. These were imported, but their quality was second to none because they were in season in the sunny place where they were grown.

I also have fond memories of the gap year I spent in France. There, my palate first cottoned on to the reality that tomatoes are fruit. But it wasn't just tomatoes that blew me away. I remember biting into a plump russet apple, which the French called Reinette du Canada. I found the name amusing, doubly so when I realized that even these so-called Canadian apples tasted better in France. It was the eighties by this time, and I had noticed a decline in produce quality at home. Quite simply, everything tasted better in France. When I tell my husband this, he scoffs, as he does when I reminisce about the fruit I enjoyed as a child. "Pure nostalgia," he says.

In an attempt to prove him wrong, I surf the Internet where I find evidence of a steady decline in the nutrient content of vegetables and fruits. I discover, for instance, that an apple today contains 55% less iron and 41 % less vitamin A than an apple from fifty years ago (see here and here). I email a professor of food science at the University of Georgia, Robert Shewfelt, who confirms that nutrition and flavour are linked since, for the most part, "nutrition is optimal and flavour is optimal at the same time." So perhaps those bloated, mid-winter strawberries are as bad as they seem — nutritionally deficient
and tasteless.

What, then, can a parent of fruit-averse children do? According to Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, one of the most subversive things we can do today is to plant a garden. I've always admired my elderly Greek-Canadian neighbour, who plants and harvests an impressive array of produce on her small North Toronto lot, but who knew she was such a radical?

As spring arrived this year, I began to wonder if I too could become a radical. My husband was skeptical, since I've rarely put trowel to dirt in my life, but as the days grew longer and the planting season approached, I resolved to try. I purchased books with titles such as The Gardener's A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food and Fruits and Berries for the Home Garden. I took the plunge and planted strawberries, cucumbers, and tomatoes in pots; I dug up some sod and stuck two raspberry plants in the ground. I watered and waited. Summer arrived, along with unprecedented rain; I watered a little less and waited some more. I became disheartened when my raspberry plants inexplicably died.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the small prickly beginnings of cucumbers appeared. The twins found a lone red strawberry amidst an abundance of runners and greenery. They shared it and pronounced it sweet! But my elation was short-lived. The strawberries stopped bearing, and the tiny cucumbers grew strangely misshapen, almost gourd-like. By summer's end, only my tomato plants were bearing well, and even they looked bedraggled and sad.
Today, as I gaze upon what remains of my garden, and peer over at my neighbour's still-lush rows, I admit I'm tempted to throw in the trowel. But I suspect that next spring, hope will trump reality. I will begin my garden anew, spurred on by the thought that, even if it takes several seasons, even if I manage to produce a mere handful of red raspberries, I might just be able to bequeath to my children a memory of redolent, in-season fruit.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Is It A Boy or a Girl?

Today's guest blogger, Prabhakar Ragde, is a professor of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. In the 1990s, he and his wife, quietly and without fanfare, made the decision not to reveal the sexes of their two children. In this post, he reflects upon that decision and its repercussions in light of the unprecedented media frenzy surrounding the so-called "genderless baby."

Is It A Boy or a Girl?

by Prabhakar Ragde

Twitter is my link to the zeitgeist. It's where I learned of the Japanese earthquake and the death of Osama bin Laden. But I also learn about many less momentous events and situations, such as the one described in an article in the Toronto Star about a Toronto couple who weren't announcing the sex of their third child.

The article went "viral", exploding on both the Web and in traditional media, eliciting much ignorant reaction from anonymous readers and only slightly more nuanced expressions of concern from so-called experts. Back in my Twitterverse, some of my tweeps offered their own 140 characters of acerbic comment. I argued back, more confidently than usual, because I had something they didn't: empirical evidence. My wife and I had done the same thing, with the birth of our first child Arju in 1992, and again in 1995 with Zazuki (Zuki), and anyone who knows our teenagers knows how well they have turned out.

Why would we want a "genderless baby"? Well, we didn't, and neither did the Toronto couple. There are three related notions of gender here. The first is biological sex, for which people often use the word "gender" as a euphemism. The second is psychological gender, or gender identity — the sex with which a person self-identifies. The third is the social role assigned to a man or woman, leading to the quote, "Gender is a social construct". The correct answer to the question "What is the baby's gender?" is probably "No one knows yet," for all babies. But what the question really is asking is "What is the baby's biological sex?"

The asker probably wants to know in order to fit the baby into a social role, and in doing so, change the nature of interaction. Although the asker will probably steadfastly deny that they would treat a boy baby and a girl baby differently, it's not hard to turn up peer-reviewed studies demonstrating otherwise. We cited a few of these in our birth announcement (we couldn't resist the conceit of including a bibliography).

But the largest influence on our children in the early years was, of course, their parents. We knew their biological sex. We'd grown up in an era when it was unusual for married women to work outside the home, or to keep their last names on being married. We're not self-aware or iron-willed enough to avoid our own gender biases, even if we wanted to completely eliminate them (which it's not clear we should, considering that our children have to live in a gender-biased world). So this was never about affecting the children, except indirectly in the examples we set as parents as they grew up. It was a minor bit of consciousness-raising among our immediate circle of family, friends, and acquaintances. Minor in the grand scheme of things, that is; it loomed fairly large for us at the time, despite the lack of media attention.

Fortunately, we have no traditions in this culture of routinely displaying the genitals of newborns, so the only things we needed to do were to avoid dressing our children in all pink or all blue, and avoid using words such as "he" or "she". It's not hard to do this in writing, especially if one is willing to adopt the singular "they" (for which there is historical precedent). Extemporaneous speech is another matter. I managed it by dint of furious concentration and much stammering, and it got easier with practice. If someone asked directly, we would briefly explain our stance, but otherwise we simply never corrected anyone's assumptions, except to spare them embarrassment. And people would make assumptions based on the flimsiest of evidence (even on whether they thought the children's names, which we made up, sounded like they referred to one sex or the other). I can remember four occasions when I slipped up and used a sex-specific pronoun to refer to Arju, but it was because the person I was talking to was using them. Twice I used "he", and twice I used "she".

My wife's parents, thousands of miles away, accepted our decision; mine, closer by, did not. Siblings and other family members we were close to were supportive. Among our friends, some were enthusiastic about the idea, and some were dubious, and it was sometimes surprising to us who took which stance. My wife and I are both professors in the same department, and our secretary reported mostly puzzlement among the academic staff. One woman was concerned that Arju would turn out gay (hard to see the logic in that one), and a few said that because they didn't know Arju's sex, they couldn't buy gifts (which we'd asked them not to do in the birth announcement, anyway). When we were out in public, we didn't make a point of bringing the topic up, but sometimes people would ask, and we'd gently explain. We never encountered any hostility; at worst, the subject would be abruptly dropped. More often, we got some clarifying questions, and maybe a nice expression of support.

We tried to choose sensible, attractive clothing in a range of colours, which meant choosing from both racks in the store, as pinks and pastels were on the girls' side, and other bright colours were on the boys' side. We gravitated towards toys that were not only fun but stimulated creativity and imagination; that meant a wide array, including both dolls and trucks, building blocks, and miniatures for role play both domestic and "on the job". (It probably helped that I did the cooking, while my wife mowed the lawn.)

Our university, at the time, topped up salary during maternity leave, but only for thirteen weeks. We had a particular daycare in mind, but we hadn't put in an application before Arju was conceived, as we would have had to do to get a spot at three months. It was nearly a year later when a slot opened up. We'd visited several times in between, to keep up our visibility, and the director of the daycare had been one of those making an incorrect assumption about Arju's sex. So when we handed in the completed registration forms and the first cheque, we had to gently explain why we hadn't corrected her.

We didn't ask for special treatment, but the director clearly took the lesson to heart, and discussed it with the staff. Years later, my friend L attended a party where she overheard a conversation in which my children came up. One of the participants had been a worker at our daycare; she didn't know that L knew us and would report back. She said that attitudes had changed among the staff as a result of the situation; they thought about possible biases in their actions, and went about their jobs in a more thoughtful, introspective fashion. How long-lasting that effect was, it's impossible to say. But this is one way that progress occurs, through small, local changes.

When Zazuki was born in 1995, no one blinked an eye when we said we were doing it again (and this time, we had put in a daycare application before conception!). Arju was by then a delightful, talkative creature, and any fears they might have had, had long since been put to rest. I kept the birth announcements up on my Web page for a while, though as the kids grew up, they seemed like old news, and I took them off. But history has a way of resurfacing.

Back in 2011, my "been there, done that" tweets must have been noticed, because a reporter from Postmedia (which owns the National Post) e-mailed me requesting an interview. I refused phone contact but gave a short statement by e-mail. He wanted more detail, and I agreed to answer by e-mail the questions he would have asked over the phone. As a consequence of my being able to compose my responses, the article had fewer distortions than usual. What I hadn't expected were the phone calls from TV networks. I let them e-mail me, and turned them down. Apparently, the Toronto couple who started the latest furor did the same, as the woman explained in a rational and intelligent article written entirely in her own words. And with that, the attention of the world turned elsewhere.

I wrote my answers to the reporter using gender-neutral language to refer to my children (as I have done here) to make a point, even though he had done his research on the Web (looking, perhaps, at their Facebook profile photos, in which it's fairly obvious) and figured out which pronouns he needed to use. His article highlights their sexes in the lede, so you can click through, if you wish, and find out for yourself. But before you do, ask yourself why that particular bit of information is so important. Really, it isn't. The desire to know, on the other hand, that is worth thinking about.