Sunday, December 19, 2010

Merry Disco Balls: Christmas in a Secular School

Last week at my twin daughters' Grade 6 holiday party, one of the activities organized by the parent volunteers was an ornament-decorating craft. A parent brought in clear glass Christmas tree balls, along with decorating supplies such as paint and Q-tips. During the parent's explanation of the craft, she suggested that the kids paint snowmen on their balls or or a wintry scene or whatever they desired. I was one of the volunteers at the party, and while I was helping distribute the ornaments, a boy asked me: "Do I have to do this craft?" I knew why he was asking; my daughters had told me that this boy, who is Jewish, had complained on other occasions about the "holiday" celebrations at the school, which were actually mostly "Christmas" celebrations. I told the boy that he didn't have to do the craft; if he wanted, he could paint the ball just for fun and not take it home. I was going to suggest that he decorate his globe with dreidels or other Hanukkah designs, but I hesitated. It was clearly a Christmas tree ornament—what was the point of me trying to pretend it was religion-neutral?

At this point the woman who had organized the craft noticed what was going on and came over to speak to the boy. I moved away from the table, but I heard her tell him that he should think of the ornament as a disco ball to hang in his room, and that he could decorate it in any way he wanted. This seemed to satisfy him, and he proceeded to paint the ball with a Menorah, dreidels and some Hebrew words. I watched as he walked over to another Jewish child in the class, who was contentedly painting a winter scene on her ball, to confer with her over the Hebrew spelling. His finished ornament wound up being one of the most beautiful in the class. But of course, he knew, as did the rest of us (parents and children alike), that it was not a disco ball.

My own children celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas. I am a product of what used to be called a "mixed" marriage so I grew up celebrating all of the major Jewish and Christian holidays. My husband is an atheist of Anglican and Presbyterian descent, who happily participates in whatever holidays happen to be going on at any particular time. In our household, we tend to celebrate religious holidays in a non-religious, cultural manner, which sometimes leads to confusion in my daughters' minds. When they were six years old, I overheard one of them explaining the meaning of Hanukkah to an older cousin: "There was supposed to be oil for one night," she said, "but it lasted for eight nights. And that was Jesus' first miracle." I decided then and there that since, as my old professor Northrop Frye argued, the Bible is integral to Western culture (or at least to Western culture's sense of itself), I would read the Bible to the girls, starting with the Old Testament and ending, if we got that far, with the New Testament. We didn't get that far. In fact, we barely made it past the flood. The girls pronounced the Bible too violent and not particularly believable. So I left it at that. (Although thankfully they do now understand that Jesus had nothing to do with the Hanukkah miracle!)

My daughters' religious education has certainly not been furthered at school. While some curricula, such as those at Waldorf and Global Knowledge schools, teach Bible stories, alongside ancient myths and legends as part of a broad-based humanist education, public schools in Ontario do not. Despite living in one of the most culturally diverse cities in North America, my girls haven't been taught about the origin or meaning of Ramadan, Diwali, Hanukkah or Christmas. Yet . . . year after year, their school's winter holiday celebrations take on a decidedly Christian cast. There are "secret Santa" gift exchanges, carol-singing assemblies (with a Hanukkah song thrown into the Christmas mix, for good measure), Christmas toy drives, etc. The school seems to be saying, we're not Christian—but in December, deck those halls, we're all about Christmas! To be fair, it could be that the school is simply reflecting its particular demographic: we happen to live in an enclave that is less religiously and ethnically diverse than most communities in the city. Nonetheless, in my daughters' class of 27, there are four Jewish children and several more who, like my twins, participate in both Christian and Jewish traditions; there are also two Muslim children and one Zoroastrian child.

I have to admit that my girls enjoy the emphasis on Christmas at school, just as I did as a child. They like the songs, the gift exchanges, the excitement. It makes sense for them to enjoy it: they celebrate Christmas at home. I often wonder about the boy who asked me if he had to decorate the ornament. I try to imagine how he feels in that classroom during the month of December. But I'm even more concerned about the kids who don't have the wherewithal to speak up. The Muslim kid in this or any other classroom who silently absorbs the message that Christianity—even in a public school in a nominally secular country like Canada—is the norm. I believe we should all think—even worry a little—about such a child during this "holiday" season.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Recess Coaches

Not long ago, my daughters came home from school complaining about something called the Kilometre Club. A school newsletter explained the program as follows: "Students are encouraged to accumulate 50 K or more by running . . . on our track every Tuesday and Thursday. . . . .This initiative will help maintain and establish an endurance base for physical fitness and for other sports." According to my daughters, the teacher in charge of the program explained that the club would be especially beneficial for children who were misbehaving in school; running around the track at recess would allow these kids to let off steam. Participation in the Kilometre Club was ostensibly voluntary, however, somewhere along the line, organizers thought it might be a good idea if everyone ran around the track at recess. So for a while all the kids were being "strongly encouraged" to run laps, not just on the designated days, but every day. It was around this time that my daughters started complaining about the program. They did not like being told how to spend their recess time. One of their best friends happens to be an avid distance runner—and even she did not want to run laps during the precious 15-minute breaks at school. I suggested to my daughters that if they didn't enjoy running laps, they should simply not do it. After all, as I pointed out to them, they are already physically active with their friends at recess, and this is the one time in the school day when they are purportedly free to play as they see fit. I also observed that even if teachers are "strongly encouraging" kids to run laps, the implication is that there is still some choice in the matter.

To make a long story short, my daughters and their friends stopped running laps, and the program seemed—thankfully—to fizzle out.

But, after reading this newspaper article about recess coaches in schools in St. Catharines, Ontario, I'm beginning to realize that the problem of adult encroachment on recess is much more widespread than I thought. Below is the comment I posted about the article on the newspaper's website site. It pretty much sums up my thoughts on the issue:

I think this program is well-intentioned but ultimately wrong. Kids need some time and space to themselves, where adults are not interfering and organizing. Do kids not have enough organized activities already? And aren't self-organized activities better in the long run in terms of the skills they teach kids? If exclusion is an issue, that can be dealt with separately in empathy and anti-bullying programs. But for goodness sake, let's put a stop to the ongoing colonization of kids' space and time by adults (however well-meaning). When I was young, we played many, many self-organized games similar to Octopus; our large "street" groups were flexible, permeable, multi-aged and inclusive. My own daughters play games like Octopus and Four-Square during recess at school without any help from "coaches." Everyone is allowed to play—in fact, they modified Four-Square and renamed it Fun Square, so that it wasn't limited to four kids. Give kids the benefit of the doubt—and a little freedom—and they might surprise you!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

"Balanced Day" = Less Play

Recess—the last bastion of free play for school-aged children—is under attack. Unstructured break time for children has been eliminated or drastically cut in many American elementary schools, and now I learn that it is being eroded in my home province of Ontario as well. In a number of school boards across the province, a program called Balanced School Day (BSD) has been introduced. Under this program, traditional lunch and recess breaks are replaced by two"nutrition breaks" of approximately 40 minutes each, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. When compared with the traditional schedule of two 15-minute recess breaks (one in the morning and one in the afternoon), and an hour-long lunch period, BSD cuts the total break time children receive during the day by a mere 10 minutes. So, one might ask, what's the big deal? If, as proponents of BSD claim, restructuring the school day in this manner allows for longer instructional blocks, leading to improvements in students' concentration and behaviour, why would anyone (such as me) object to it?

The answer to this question becomes clear when one compares the two scheduling models more closely. In the traditional schedule, kids get a total of 30 minutes of pure recess time, and a lunch period comprised of, on average, a 20-minute period for eating, followed by 40 minutes of outdoor play time. That's a total of 70 minutes of unstructured play time per day. In the Balanced Day schedule, the twice-daily nutrition breaks are each divided into two twenty minute blocks, one for eating and one for outdoor play. So BSD allows for a total of 40 minutes of free play per day, versus 70 minutes under the traditional schedule. As even a young child with minimal math skills could tell you, this is a substantial difference!

In fact, according to a study of BSD in four elementary schools in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board from 2002-2004, kids do seem to notice and to care about the reduction in recess time. The authors of the report observe that along with certain benefits—for example, a cleaner school, less time wasted in "transitions" from playground to school—there were some negative effects of the alternative schedule. There was, for example, "somewhat more total aggression on the playground in BSD schools and somewhat more hallway aggression during transition times." As for overall satisfaction with BSD, the authors concede: "The students . . . were least satisfied with the new schedule." I'm happy that students' opinions were solicited; I'm not surprised that they would prefer a schedule that better accommodates their need—and their right—to play. But since principals, caretakers, parents, teachers and secretaries tended to view BSD in a more positive light, I'm also not surprised that the program has since become the norm in a majority of schools throughout the Hamilton-Wentworth board, and has been implemented in many other school boards across the province. After all, even in situations where students are affected more directly by potential changes than anyone else, when push comes to shove, and policy decisions must be made, adults' views invariably trump those of children. Currently, it seems that a majority of adults in charge of education policy privilege measures purporting to improve "achievement" over those concerned primarily with the well-being of children. That is why—for all the talk of "nurturing" environments, and despite nominally progressive, well-intentioned policies such as BSD—many schools remain fundamentally un-child-friendly places for young people to spend their days.

*In fairness, it is possible to find more unequivocally positive accounts of BSD, for example, on websites of the school boards that have embraced it. There also exist summaries of the research paper cited above that put a much more positive spin on the results, ignoring the negatives identified by the authors. The fact remains, however, that students surveyed for the Hamilton-Wentworth study—the only objective, in-depth look at BSD to date—expressed a clear preference for the traditional schedule.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Paying Kids to Stay in School: Do the Ends Justifiy the Means?

Chris Spence, director of education of the Toronto District School Board, is a fascinating character. An ex-CFLer (Canadian Football League, for my American readers), he is an experienced educator with big ideas, and enthusiasm to spare. Since assuming the job of director of education for the TDSB in 2009, he has spearheaded a variety of unorthodox projects. Some, like the new Africentric Alternative School, have come to fruition; others—for example, a package of specialty schools, including single-sex elementary and middle schools, a sports academy and a choir school—he continues to fight for.

Spence is an avid Twitterer, with 1900 followers, many prominent educationists among them; he himself follows an eclectic group of educators, policy makers and politicians, as well as celebrities such as Kanye West and Justin Beiber.

I am one of Spence's 1900 followers, and I'm therefore the happy recipient of his often eccentric tweets about education and life. I don't always agree with his positions. I share neither his unbridled zeal for technology in school nor his belief that STEM should be the principal focus of contemporary education. But even when I disagree with him, I admire the passion he brings to his job, and his apparent openness to new educational ideas. However, once in a while he tweets something that gives me pause, and makes me worry that his passion may be morphing into a kind of Kool-Aid-drinking fervour. I especially feel this way when he tweets ideas that seem to be "ripped" from American media headlines about the so-called crisis in education.

An example: on November 14, he tweeted "Should we pay kids in our more disadvantaged communities to do well in school? Perhaps, as part of a poverty reduction scheme?"

Now, this is a practice that has been tried in the US and Mexico (and to a lesser extent in Canada) with varying degrees of success. (See here, here and here.) Some studies have found that financial incentives are effective, but most have found that they work best on the kids who need them least: motivated students perform better with cash incentives, unmotivated students do not. But whether the practice works or not is, in my view, completely beside the point. There are times when it is important to be clear about the values we as a society are trying to inculcate in our children. Times when we need to understand that the ends do not always justify the means. For example, it has been argued that the threat of corporal punishment in schools* deters some kids from misbehaving. A case could also be made—though I haven't actually heard anyone make it—that Ritalin should be given to all school children, not just those diagnosed with attention disorders. After all, Ritalin is a drug that helps kids focus; if it were dispensed to all children, classroom-management problems would undoubtedly melt away. Calm classrooms full of medicated kids would likely translate into better test scores, which is something education officials seem to care very much about these days.

But, of course, no one in education today is seriously advocating a return to the strap or medicating all children, because it is obvious that such practices violate the tenets of what we hold to be our values. So the question is, do we believe bribing children is right or wrong? In education, do we or don't we believe that intrinsic motivation on the part of children is superior to extrinsic motivation? These are the questions we need to be asking, not simply do cash incentives work.

There is another reason why I take umbrage at the idea of paying poor kids to stay in school: it is essentially an admission of defeat. By offering money to certain kids in exchange for staying in school, we are conceding that the education on offer at our schools is not relevant or exciting enough in its own right to hold these kids' interest. More important, we're also affirming our collective unwillingness to tackle the root problem—poverty—head on, revealing instead a timorous inclination to chip at it around the edges by doling out a few dollars here and there through the school system. Both of these admissions are depressing. Do Spence, and other advocates of paying the poor to stay in school, really want to make them?

* While researching this post, I was surprised to learn that the corporal punishment in school is still permitted in 20 States in the US, and that it was not officially banned in Canada until 2004.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

New Report Cards—Progress?

Readers of this blog may recall that several months ago, I reviewed the Toronto District School Board's new, purportedly jargon-free, parent-friendly report card, piloted in 19 schools last June. (See post here.) This November we are seeing the results of yet another reform of the report card system, this one a province-wide initiative to replace the fall graded report card with an ungraded "Elementary Progress Report Card." The progress report was spearheaded by teachers who complained that November is too soon to come up with letter grades for students. According to ministry of education literature, the advantage of the progress report is that it provides, in a greatly expanded section, detailed information about a student's work habits—for instance, Responsibility, Organization, Collaboration—skills which the ministry considers to be more reliable indicators of student success (or lack thereof) than grades in the early part of the year. The brochure accompanying the new report card explains that with respect to specific subjects, the progress report offers personalized comments about a student's "progress towards" (as opposed to "achievement of") grade-level curriculum standards. Thus, in the subject section of the new report, grades are replaced by three categories: "progressing with difficulty," "progressing well," and "progressing very well."

So, do these progress reports, sent home in our case on November 16, actually represent "progress" for parents and students? My answer, and that of my kids, is an ambivalent yes and no.

Initially, my daughters were opposed to the ungraded report cards; in their view grades, and grades alone, tell you how well you're doing at school. I've always told them that marks don't matter all that much, that learning is what is important. In fact, although they've always been excellent students, I did not even let them see their report cards until Grade 3 (when they put their foot down and demanded to read them). But while I was attempting to de-emphasize grades, the school and teachers were succeeding in teaching them a different lesson: grades do matter, they matter more than almost anything else. For the past three years, virtually everything my daughters have produced for school, both in the classroom and at home—including notes in their workbooks, artwork, math desk work and homework, grammar exercises, and dramatic performances—has been graded. In my opinion, this mania for grading has several deleterious effects, not the least of which is the way it discourages children from experimenting or trying new things. But that is a subject for another post. For the moment, suffice it to say that given teachers' penchant for grading everything they do, my daughters could be forgiven for concluding that grades are indeed the point of education.

So the girls' initial disappointment with the lack of grades was understandable. Interestingly, however, as they read through the new report cards, they seemed to enjoy not seeing letter grades. It was a change, a relief perhaps, and it led them to the comments, which previously they had dismissed as irrelevant.

But, being savvy readers-between-the-lines, they immediately noted that the new categories—"progressing with difficulty," "progressing well," and "progressing very well"—could be easily correlated to grades, and that the comments, while marginally more personalized, still had a cookie-cutter feel to them, and were consequently not particularly revealing of their specific strengths and weaknesses.

My own take on the new report cards is nearly as ambivalent as that of my daughters. I do find the "progress" reports, with their detailed comments in both the work habits and subject sections, slightly more helpful than graded reports in conveying a sense of how my daughters are doing. I've heard parents complain that grades give them a truer picture of how their child is faring academically, and prevent any potential surprises come February, when the first graded report card is sent home. I don't think this is a valid concern: in our school, and I suspect in a majority of schools in the TDSB, practically every quiz, assignment or test, has to be signed by the parent and returned to the teacher, so how could there be any surprises?

My problem with the new report cards is, on the contrary, that they do not, in the end, constitute an alternative to graded reports. I think the ministry of education is trying to have it both ways. On the one hand it seems to be trying to de-emphasize grades, and direct parents' attention to what it deems most important at this point in the school year: work habits. But on the other hand, the new "progress" categories in effect re-introduce grades through the back door. It is also somewhat disingenuous to proclaim that grades don't matter in the first term, but are useful and necessary in the second or third terms. I'm sure I'm in a minority here, but I'd be happy if there were no grades in elementary school, full stop. Then perhaps it would not be an uphill battle to convince my daughters that learning—challenging oneself, thinking critically, experimenting—is the point of education, not grades. But if the ministry and school boards are going to commit to grades, I see little point in committing to them two thirds of the time, as they have chosen to do.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Reflections on Remembrance Day and Kids

Over on PhD in Parenting there is a post entitled "More than 2 minutes of silence" about innovative ways to commemorate Remembrance Day with children. Below is the comment I submitted in response to this post:

I’m very conflicted about how to celebrate Remembrance Day with my kids. They have great-great uncles who fought in WWI; one of them was blinded in the trenches and came back to Canada to help found the CNIB. However, I feel that Remembrance Day has become politicized in ways that rub me the wrong way. For instance, instead of being about remembering the war dead, it’s often talked about in terms of men and women who gave their lives in the name of “freedom.” But many wars have nothing to do with freedom (WWI is arguably one of them, Afghanistan another), and everything to do with a political system that still believes it is OK to send men and women off to kill and be killed. We tell our children to use their words, yet our politicians continue to countenance the use of guns to resolve conflicts.

I guess I'm trying to say that, for me, what is lacking in Remembrance Day ceremonies is an emphasis on peace. So this November 11 I took the opportunity to tell my children about the interesting history of the white poppy, and how there are people who are trying to prevent it from being made available as an alternative—or a complement—to the red poppy. And how, ironically, these are the same people who talk about the value of fighting for “freedom.”

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


My post on "constructivist math" generated a bit of discussion on mathematics—as opposed to parenting—blogs, which is, I think, a good thing. Given the importance of math and science both in education and (as we are always being told) in the global economy, I think it is unfortunate that there exist so few avenues of dialogue between math teachers and parents, and between mathematicians and non-math types like me. In any case, here are links to two blogs where my original post is discussed:

Republic of Mathematics

The Max Ray Blog at the Math Forum

Thursday, October 28, 2010


The other day, my 11-year-old daughter left a note on the scratch paper she was using to do her math homework. It read (caps hers):
This note depressed me. But quite frankly, it did not surprise me. The math program in our public school—a Canadianized version of the reform math so reviled in the US—continually frustrates and confuses my twin daughters, both of whom are A students in math. Both of them have declared, on many, many occasions during the past three or four years of struggling through this program, that they hate math. This really depresses me, because my husband and I have gone to great lengths to instill in our girls a love of math, a sense that it can be interesting and fun and challenging, and that, contrary to the message they may be receiving from the culture in general, it is something about which girls and boys should be equally enthusiastic.

Before I go any further, let me state a few facts about myself. Yes, I dislike reform math or "fuzzy" math or constructivist math, or whatever you want to call it. But . . . I am not an educational conservative, a back to basics advocate, or a nostalgic drill-and-kill enthusiast. On the contrary, I am a firm believer in progressive, child-friendly public schooling for all. I feel I have to say this because the "math wars" have been so politicized, both in the US and here in Canada (where in true Canadian style, the "war" was more of a minor skirmish followed by complete capitulation), that anyone who opposes the current math curriculum is branded as educationally retrograde. I think in order for an intellectually honest and productive discussion of math education to occur, this politicization and presumptive name-calling has to stop.

So why do I object to constructivist math? One reason is that it is, by-design, non-incremental or "spiral": its textbooks jump around from topic to topic, never staying on a subject long enough to allow for deep understanding or competence. I also dislike reform math because it frowns upon direct instruction. Since constructivist math teachers believe children can "construct" or "discover" mathematical truths and come up with their own algorithms to solve problems, they offer students minimal guidance, and are not averse to putting the cart before the horse: e.g., assigning algebra-type problems before teaching the tools of algebra, or asking kids to divide or multiply by decimals or fractions without having first taught them how decimals and fractions work.

All of this—the bouncing around from topic to topic, the "challenging" problems, the lack of direct teaching—constructivists defend in the name of what they call "conceptual" learning, which they oppose to both abstract instruction and their favourite straw man, "drill-and-kill" work. But there are two problems with this normative use of the term "conceptual." First of all, "conceptual" and "abstract" constitute a false binary opposition: a concept can be abstract, and an abstraction is not necessarily unconceptual. Take the standard algorithm for long division. Because this method of performing division—like all mathematical algorithms—can be separated from concrete or specific division problems, it is deemed to be abstract. Proponents of constructivist math argue that presenting it upfront would be tantamount to teaching division in a manner that does not allow kids to understand the concept behind it or why and how it works. But a mathematician (and it's interesting to me that most of the authors of constructivist math textbooks are not mathematicians) might counter that the algorithm embodies the concept—otherwise it would not work. So, let's say a teacher were to demonstrate the standard algorithm for long division at the outset of a lesson; he or she could, conceivably, set aside class time for practice and mastery, and then—with student participation—pick apart the algorithm to find out how and why it works. Would this be less conceptual than making kids stumble through division problems on their own, hoping they will discover an efficient algorithm, which most of them will never do?

Secondly, even if the terms conceptual and abstract were in fact polar opposites, why would we favour one over the other? There are some kids who love working in groups or with concrete materials (methods favoured by constructivists) but there are others, like both my daughters, who simply enjoy playing with symbols on a page, and who find all the illustrations, and colourful doodads in their current textbook patronizing and distracting. Why do we assume that math instruction must be a one size-fits-all proposition?

But my real opposition to the privileging of the conceptual in constructivist math is that it is misleading and even hypocritical: in my experience, constructivist textbooks do not encourage conceptual understanding at all. Indeed, my main problem with reform math is that it does not promote mathematical understanding, full stop.

The note from my daughter with which I started this post, in which she expresses her ongoing frustration with math, was sparked by a revealing instance of the true non-conceptual nature her constructivist math text. The problems my daughters were working on for their homework that night involved perimeter and area. In certain questions, they had to compare perimeters given in different metric units. To do that, they had to convert, for instance, metres to centimetres or vice versa in order to figure out which of two given perimeters was bigger. My daughters had no problem with this, but then they were confronted with a problem in which they had to compare the areas of two rectangles—one measuring 8400 centimetres squared and the other measuring .84 metres squared—and, again, indicate which was bigger. Their first instinct was simply to multiply .84 by 100 in order to carry out the comparison. This was my first instinct as well, but something (a residual spark of mathematical reasoning?) told me that in the case of area, it didn't quite work this way. Confused, I flipped back a page or two to see if any explanation of this type of problem had been given. I found no explanation, but I did find, in a coloured bubble in the margin of the previous page, these instructions:
When you convert an area in metres squared to centimtres squared, each dimension is multiplied by 100. So, the area is multiplied by 100 x 100, or 10,000.
So there it was: a formula! No verbal or visual exposition, just an easily-missed bubble telling the kids what to do. You can't get any less "conceptual" than that. My daughters read the instructions and understood them, but they wanted to know why the formula worked. I asked them if the teacher had explained it, and they said he had not. I tried, unsuccessfully, to explain it. I then enlisted the help of my computer-scientist husband. He drew diagrams, and took my daughters, step-by-step, through the hows and whys of the formula given by the textbook; in doing so he was able to teach the girls how to carry out conversions from any metric unit squared to another—which the textbook formula, restricted as it was to conversions from metres squared to centimetres squared, was unable to do.

My point here is neither to ridicule my daughters' math textbook nor to blame the school for choosing it; it is, after all, one of a handful of textbooks approved and financially supported by the provincial government. My purpose, rather, is to demonstrate that this so-called constructivist, "conceptual" textbook is neither. It's just poorly-presented, pedagogically dubious, bad math. Which is why I concur with my daughter: THIS MATH DEPRESSES ME.

(See also THIS MATH DEPRESSES ME—Update and A Grade 7 Math Question)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Separate Schools for LGBT Kids?

To its credit, the Toronto District School Board, has a long history of supporting alternative schools. In fact, it boasts North America's first public alternative secondary school, SEED, which stands for Shared Experience Exploration and Discovery, and which was originally a "free" school. There are currently 41 alternative schools operating within the board, as well as multiple special schools and programs for arts, athletics, science, etc. A few of the most recently inaugurated alternative schools have been controversial. The elementary "Africentric Alternative School" caused quite a stir when it was proposed in 2007; the typical arguments for and against separate schooling for minority children were trotted out, but in the end the school was approved and opened its doors to 90 children in 2009.

In light of the disturbing spate of suicides among gay and lesbian students in the US, one has to wonder if separate schooling should be considered in this case as well. In fact, there is a program, housed in one of Toronto's alternative schools, called Triangle. Here's how the school board's website describes it:

Unique in Canada, we offer academic and applied level programs for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (lgbtq) students who are able to work independently with some guidance. Our program covers lgbtq history, literature, and issues as well as a lunch program, class field trips, access to lgbtq community events, and co-op education.

This program, then, provides the safe space for LGBT youth that is so sorely lacking in regular middle and secondary schools. Which is wonderful, but I find it sad that such a school should be necessary. The optimistic side of me believes that if anti-bullying education were taken seriously enough, started early enough, and were specific enough—if it included explicit discussion of words like "fag" and "queer" and "gay," and explanations of how and why they are used as slurs—then separate LGBT schools would not be needed. But I'm enough of a realist to know that this is not likely to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, programs like Triangle—in fact, whole schools—should be set up across North America as options for LGBT kids. If they prevent even one teen suicide, they will have been worth it.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Breeding Tolerance: Is it Possible?

In 2008 I published an article in a local newspaper about my daughters' emerging understanding of the word “gay.” The article was inspired in part by Ellen Degeneres’ emotional plea for tolerance in the wake of the murder of Lawrence King, a teenager from Oxnard, California killed by a classmate simply for being gay. Now, two years later, King's murder trial is underway, yet the bullying of gay teenagers continues unabated. Gay teens have been driven to suicide in Indiana, Texas and California. Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman, jumped off the George Washington Bridge to his death after his roommate posted a video online of him kissing a man in his dorm room. In light of these deeply disturbing incidents, I have decided to post an earlier, less-edited version of my 2008 article here; I believe it is—unfortunately—still relevant and timely.

Twin sisters question the meaning of “gay”

In February 2008, Lawrence King, a gay teenager from Oxnard California was killed by a classmate for openly expressing his sexuality. After reading the chilling details of the story on the Internet, I was left with a perturbing question: How does a child grow up to believe that hatred and murder are acceptable responses to difference?

My eight-year-old twin daughters have been brought up in a fairly typical, liberal heterosexual family. Yet the word “gay,” with all its ambiguous cultural freight, entered their lives at a young age. One fall day in Grade 1, they asked offhandedly, “What's ‘gay’”? My face must have registered surprise because E added by way of explanation, “Connor was talking about it.” Connor was a boy in their class who had older siblings and was clearly in a different league of worldliness.

I hesitated. How could I respond to such a question in a way that a 6-year-old could understand? “Well,” I ventured, “when you’re a man, and you want to spend most of your time or life with another man, you could be gay, or if you’re a woman and you’re more interested in living with a woman than a man, you might be gay.”

“Can two girls or two boys get married?” the other twin—J—asked.

Canada had recently passed legislation legalizing gay marriage, so I answered truthfully, “In this country, yes.”

E piped up: “When I grow up I’m going to be gay; I’m gay.”

“I’m not,” J said, “I don’t want to be gay.”

OK then, I thought, I’ll have one of each. Just give me grandchildren. Aloud, I said, “You don’t have to worry about this stuff for a long time.”

I didn’t hear anything further about “gay” for a few months. Then one day while the girls were playing dolls with a friend in our kitchen, I overheard an interesting conversation. The friend, a good-natured North Toronto girl, said about her favourite doll: “When Taryn grows up she’s going to marry a girl, so she never has to kiss a boy.” The twins nodded approvingly. I tiptoed out to the living room stifling a laugh.

It wasn’t until the end of Grade 2 that I began to notice the twins’ neutrality towards all things gay and lesbian starting to erode. E no longer wanted to be gay because, as she explained—after I was forced to answer very pointed questions about where babies came from—she did not want to have to “to borrow a seed” from a sperm bank (a solution my husband had helpfully proposed). J asserted that being gay wasn’t the best option because it wasn’t “the tradition,” at least not in our family. Curious, I quizzed them on their attitudes, wondering if they had heard negative talk at school.

“Well, we don’t know anyone who’s gay,” E said, accusingly. I pointed out that there was a lesbian couple living a few houses away on our street. The girls were surprised; my husband had taken them trick-or-treating to that house, but neither they nor we knew the couple well.

J looked thoughtful. “Hmm,” she said, “maybe it would be nice to be a lesbian because you could have lots of nice teas on the verandah with your wife.” She proceeded to launch into a make-believe dialogue, playing both parts herself in a bad English accent: “Ella come and have tea with me on the verandah. In a minute dear. OK dear,” and so on.

“Is that how you think lesbians live?” I asked, laughing.


J's favourable—albeit Victorian—view of lesbianism seemed to persist. In the middle of Grade 3 she told me that her friend Sarah had taken to telling her almost daily that she loved her. “But,” J explained, “Sarah always adds, ‘as a friend,’ because otherwise she says we’d be gay.”

“What do you say?” I asked.

“Nothing. Except once when she said, ‘or we’d be gay,’ I said ‘well, we could be,’ and Sarah said ‘eeww,’ and ran away.” I considered telling J that I was proud of her for uttering that little phrase “well, we could be,” for daring to acknowledge, in her own childish way, that gayness exists, but I let it go. It seemed I’d said enough.

Except it's never enough. Time and again, I'm jostled out my doze of complacency—by a conversation, a word—into an awareness that as parents we can never do enough to inculcate acceptance of difference in all its incarnations.

Not long ago, the girls asked about another culturally freighted word, “queer.” A socially savvy friend had informed them there was another meaning besides “odd” or “strange,” but she wouldn't tell them what it was. I launched into a complicated, politically-correct explanation of how some people use “queer” as a not-so-nice way to say “gay,” but that some gays and lesbians had “taken back” the word and now used it to refer to themselves, which is OK because . . . Two pairs of 8-year-old eyes glazed over in unison. I left it at that.

Then, just last week, the girls rushed in the door after school, bubbling with excitement. “Mom,” E said, “Lauren finally told us what the other meaning of ‘queer’ is and it’s not what you said at all.”

“What is it then?”

“She said it means stupid.”

We can never do enough indeed.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Junk Lunch

I've had this post sitting in my drafts file since last spring. I hadn't worked on it much, but I'd thought about it often, and I had a lot to say. I was planning to make some pointed observations about school lunches. I also hoped to raise a few seldom-asked questions about the importance schools place—or do not place—on children's health and nutrition. More specifically, I wanted to write about: why lunch periods in elementary schools have been reduced in length from an hour and a half, when I was a kid, to one hour or less today; how and why kids are rushed out of unappealing lunch rooms (overseen by authoritarian "Lunch Ladies") after 10-15 minutes; why the one lunch program that is a given in almost all Toronto District School Board schools—the Pizza Lunch fundraiser—is a junk lunch. But then I was alerted to this report from CBS on school lunches in France, and I realized that not only does it tie into my previous post on the French Paradox, but that it speaks for itself, and for me. There's nothing more to say. (Thanks to Corey Mintz for the link.)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Finnish Paradox: Is Finland to Education as France is to Health?

The French Paradox is a well-known conundrum in the field of public health. Wikipedia defines it as: "the observation that French people suffer a relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease, despite having a diet relatively rich in saturated fats." The reason we have a hard time understanding how the French can eat the way they do—for instance, consuming full fat cheeses at lunch and supper daily—and remain healthy is that we are looking at the problem of diet and health through a particular lens, namely, the lens of fat intake. If our perception of health revolves around the issue of fat, specifically around the notion that reducing saturated fat is essential to good health, then there is no way to understand French health statistics; they become a "paradox." If saturated fat is not the key issue—and the latest medical research suggests that in fact it is not—then the French way of eating and staying healthy becomes less mysterious. After all, in addition to consuming all that saturated fat, the French do not snack much between meals, they drink loads of healthful red wine, and they eat a far greater variety of foods, including many more types of fruits and vegetables, than North Americans.

The Finnish education system is a paradox to American education "reformers" in the same way the French diet is a paradox to mainstream medical scientists. In Finnish education less is more. Kids start formal education late by North American standards (at age 7), and their school hours are shorter. Finnish teachers assign very little homework and carry out minimal standardized testing (performing sample testing only); teachers are less bound by rigid national curriculum standards, and are largely unburdened by hysteria over "accountability." In Finnish classrooms there is little technology—fewer smart boards, more blackboards. There are no gifted classes, the idea being that the more able students will benefit from interacting with, and helping, the less able students in the classroom. Yet despite all this, Finnish students' scores on international tests are among the highest in the world.

What are education professionals to make of this? Here again is a paradox wherein the data do not fit preconceived theories. Yet as in the case of the French diet, the data don't lie. Sooner or later American educrats—those currently making a lot of noise about the "crisis" in education—will have to deal with Finland. They would do well, in my opinion, to read an essay published last year by the Annenburg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. The author of this essay, Linda Darling-Hammond, explains how Finnish education officials chose a very different path to "reform" from that of their Anglo-American counterparts. Unlike Anglo-Saxon countries:

Finland has not adopted . . . standardization of curriculum enforced by frequent external tests; narrowing of the curriculum to basic skills in reading and mathematics; reduced use of innovative teaching strategies; adoption of educational ideas from external sources, rather than development of local internal capacity for innovation and problem solving; and adoption of high-stakes accountability policies, featuring rewards and sanctions for students, teachers, and schools.

In contrast, she quotes a Finnish education policy analyst who explains:

Finnish education policies are a result of four decades of systematic, mostly intentional, development that has created a culture of diversity, trust, and respect within Finnish society, in general, and within its education system, in particular... Education sector development has been grounded on equal opportunities for all, equitable distribution of resources rather than competition, intensive early interventions for prevention, and building gradual trust among education practitioners, especially teachers.

Hmm. Equitable distribution of resources. Trust. But. . . don't Finnish kids far outscore North American kids on international tests? Paradox indeed.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Curriculum Night

I just got back from "curriculum night," at my daughters' school, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. The girls' main (grade 6) teacher spoke at some length about having decided to adhere as closely as possible to the Toronto District School Board's homework policy, which I reviewed in a guest post on Sara Bennett's now sadly defunct StopHomework site (see here and here). The teacher explained that his goal this year is to attempt to cover the bulk of the curriculum, especially the overstuffed math curriculum, through in-class work. To that end, he has scheduled double math periods a few times a week. He noted that according to the revised 2008 homework policy, work completed at home cannot be assigned a grade, but is reported on only in the (non-graded) learning skills section of the report card.

In the two weeks since school began I had noticed that the girls were not bringing home much homework, just the occasional math problem that they hadn't managed to finish in class. But I was surprised at the teacher's admission that this was a conscious change of practice on his part. Last spring I interviewed the principal of our school for my post about the homework policy, and she told me that she fully supports the revised policy, and that at the beginning of each year she reviews it with the teaching staff. I'm wondering if our "chat" last spring, had anything to do with the changes I'm seeing this year. If so, it gives me hope that as a parent I can effect change, even by doing something as non-confrontational as writing a blog post about a particular policy. Nonetheless, I have to give credit where credit's due. In a handout the teacher distributed to parents, he further explained his position this way: "I have a young family and believe that spending time with your own children is very important. Spending less time on homework should allow children to do more of their preferred educational activities at home." How refreshing!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Back to Jail—Ugh!

Between the ages of eight and eleven I kept a diary. Although I like to think I was a fairly imaginative kid, my diary entries are strikingly unimaginative and repetitive. But they are interesting to me nonetheless for one reason: every weekday entry during the school year started this way: "I went to jail, ugh." Throughout the entire course of the diary I never referred to school by any other term. The reason this interests—or rather confuses me—is that I didn't actually dislike school. I didn't love it, I may have been a little bored, but I had several good school friends, and I was comfortable there. My elementary school, and even my middle school were second homes to me. I do not remember experiencing them as places of stress or undue misery.

As I prepare to send my own daughters back to school, I've been reflecting on what a difference two or three decades makes. My daughters are in the throes of back-to-school dread, and for good reason: to them school does indeed feel like a sort of prison. Despite the "progressive," child-centered rhetoric of the last thirty years—rhetoric that is especially prominent in school boards such ours (Toronto District School Board), which pride themselves on their forward-thinking approach to education—I would argue that schools have become more repressive, more prison-like than when I was a kid. Take lockdown drills, for instance, which every school in the TDSB is required to conduct twice yearly. This is a practice that originated in prisons as a means of containing riots by controlling the movement of the inmates; its adoption by school boards throughout North America is justified by citing hypothetical threats to "security." When my children were subjected to their first mock "lockdown" in grade 2, they were traumatized, their minds filled for days with images of potentially violent intruders skulking around the schoolyard or wandering down hallways. Around the same time, the school implemented new anti-bullying policies and procedures, the literature for which was full of references to "safe" schools. Could the administrators not see a contradiction between the two policies? How is subjecting children as young as four to lockdown drills conducive to creating a psychologically "safe" space? Have school boards ever performed a cost benefit analysis of the practice in terms of psychological harm versus physical security? (When kids get to high school, the "lockdown" effect is in many cases compounded by the presence of armed police officers enforcing "zero tolerance" policies. But that is a subject for another post.)

Today's schools are punitive and authoritarian in a subtler but arguably more harmful manner as well. Without much debate or any overt change in policy, schools have begun in recent years to exert more and more control over children in the most basic, bodily of ways. In the playground there are rules against running, against using the playground equipment in an unapproved manner, against play fighting or roughhousing of any kind. Within the school and classroom, access to the bathroom is even restricted. If a child asks to go to the toilet before or after recess, his or her request is likely to be denied. I witnessed this policy being enacted in a junior kindergarten class a few years ago while I was volunteering in the school library. A junior kindergartner (i.e., a four-year-old child!) had the audacity to ask the teacher if he could go to the bathroom soon after recess. I didn't hear everything the teacher said in response, but I did hear her when she began to yell loudly at the child who was slinking down the aisle toward the nearest bathroom, "No, it's not okay. You know you're supposed to go at recess. You know the rules. It's not okay!" When Michel Foucault wrote about the ways in which the state exerts it power at the micro level, including at the level of the human body, he probably did not have this scenario in mind. But for me, it is a perfect example of the early "disciplining and punishment" of the human soul.

A few more anecdotes to drive home the point, especially the under-acknowledged fact that schools have become more, not less, authoritarian in recent years:

My older brother recently told me that when he was in elementary school—this would have been in the late sixties—a teacher berated him in a manner that he felt was uncalled for and unfair. My brother's response? He simply left the school and walked home at recess. The school called my mother, who actually defended him!

Fast forward forty some-odd years. I picked my daughter up from school one day in fourth grade and upon seeing me, she immediately burst into tears. She'd been feeling physically ill for the final half hour or so of school, and upon arriving home she promptly threw up and took to her bed. I later asked her why she hadn't told the teacher she needed to call home. "It was close to dismissal time," she explained. "The teacher would have said I had to wait."

On another occasion, my daughter had a total breakdown after she accidentally dented her trombone. Even though my daughter considered the band instructor to be one of the "nice" teachers, she claimed he was nonetheless going to "murder" her for denting the instrument. I have rarely seen her so distraught. She cried for one hour straight, repeating over and over again "he's going to kill me." I asked her why she couldn't just tell him the truth: that someone had accidentally bumped into her and the trombone got dented. She looked at me as if I were stupid and said, "I can't just say that, because he's an adult and I'm not, and teachers don't believe kids." I went into the school the next day and talked to the teacher, who nonchalantly told me he'd send the trombone out to be repaired. He even provided another trombone for my daughter to use in the meantime. But I was left wondering whether he would have responded as casually had my daughter actually done the explaining herself. What is it about him, I wondered, or more generally, what is it about school that makes my daughter feel so utterly dis-empowered as a human being?

This, I believe, is the kind of question we, as parents and as citizens who pay for public education, need to be asking not just about specific schools, but about the current culture of public school in general.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Camp Keep-Me-Busy

I always assumed my daughters would go to overnight camp. Well, not really assumed; hoped, perhaps. It's not that I'm the type of parent who panics at the prospect of spending two months with children hanging around the house. I believe in a lot of free, unstructured time for kids, and I provide my girls with plenty of it every summer and throughout the year. It's just that I thought there would come a time when my daughters would want to go to overnight camp. After all, I went to camp, my husband went to camp, most of our friends went to camp. It just seemed like the Canadian thing to do (okay, the Canadian-of-a-certain-class thing to do, but allow me to ignore that not-insignificant point for the sake of argument): Spend a couple of weeks on the Canadian shield learning to appreciate all things natural.

When my daughters were young they tried out a variety of summer day camps; their reaction to those experiences were at best lukewarm and at worst downright hostile. Too much hurrying around in the morning, they complained, too much structure, too much like school or day-care. In fact, I came to the conclusion that most day camps are in reality glorified daycare. They have proliferated enormously in the last several decades to accommodate the fact that, more often than not, two parents are working during most of the summer break. This is not a bad thing; on the contrary, day camps are clearly providing a much needed service, but it means that we should not necessarily expect day camp to furnish our kids with a carefree, "camp-like" experience.

I understood this, and when my girls put their foot down and refused to attend day camp, insisting on safeguarding their free time, both at the cottage and in the city, I acquiesced. I watched as they made up their own games, both indoors and out, and read book after book after book. How could I object to that?

But, I thought, overnight camp is different. Overnight camp is where kids get to enjoy the true camping experience. Blue lakes and rocky shores. Singing camp songs around the camp fire, pitching tents, canoeing on crystalline northern waters.

My daughters turned eleven this year, and still they show no interest in overnight camp. Most of their friends are now attending camp for several weeks every summer, but my two are still holding out, resistant, suspicious. To encourage them to keep an open mind, I showed them the websites of some of the camps their friends are attending. This turned out to be a mistake. The girls took one look at the sample schedules and balked. With reason. A "typical day at camp," proudly advertised, ran something like this: Up at 7:00 a.m., flagpole at 7:30, breakfast at 8:00, three morning activities, lunch, rest period, three afternoon activities, swimming, dinner, after-dinner activities, and lights out around 10:00 pm. I was exhausted even looking at it. Yes, sprinkled throughout the day were some of the "traditional" activities that I remembered, such as canoeing, archery, and arts and crafts. But there were also things like "softball," "ultimate Frisbee," and "aerobics." One camp had even built a skate park.

I don't remember camp being so busy. We had scheduled activities, maybe two in the morning and one in the afternoon, but I also remember having a lot of time to chat with cabin-mates, hang out on the beach or rocks or just read. Evening activities were not nightly, and mostly took the form of sing-songs around a campfire or roasting marshmallows. Nowadays the emphasis seems to be on keeping kids busy. One of the camps we looked at proudly boasts: "Because every day at camp is crammed with activities, there is never a dull moment." Another states, "With over 28 activities to choose from . . . there's just no time to be bored!" At yet another camp, campers are reassured that the cabins are comfortable, then warned: "Don't get too comfortable though because you don't spend much time in your cabin!" I understand that at camp the emphasis is on the outdoors, but why are today's campers not allowed a certain amount of time to . . . I don't know, relax, laze about with their friends, read? When did the "rah rah" types, the kind of people who believe that only by pushing kids, both mentally and physically, will you achieve "results" (whatever that may mean in the context of camp) take over camping? When did camp counselor morph into gym teacher or sports coach?

The problem with this camping model is that it simply doesn't suit all children. My kids, for instance, while they are open to experiencing new activities, need their down time. They need sleep. They are slightly introverted, though not unsociable, yet almost all the camps we looked at seemed geared to extroverts. Where is the camp with the relaxed, sane schedule, where the needs of extroverts and introverts are respected and catered to? Where is the camp that emphasizes nature over junk-sports and keep-'em busy activities? If such a camp existed, I believe my daughters would be interested, and I would send them. If you know of such a camp, please let me know.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

G20 and kids

"You know, if we’d only spent a billion more on security, we might have been able to save those three police cars."

Myles Murchison, White Rock, B.C. (Letter to the editor, Globe and Mail, June 29)

The G20 security fence is finally coming down. The chaos, anxiety and disruptions have come to an end and, like most Torontonians, I am relieved that it is over, irritated that it was here at all, and unimpressed with its so-called accomplishments. In the media, what really stole the attention was the so-called Black Bloc protesters, which politicians and officials of various stripes deemed "violent criminals," "anarchist thugs," and even "terrorists." Hyperbole? Perhaps. But what interests me is the way my children were influenced by the prevailing discourse about the protests.

I should preface this by saying that my kids watch very little TV, and they never watch the news. But they do check (local news station) CP24 for the weather daily. So when they turned it on during the Saturday of the summit, they saw images of protesters throwing rocks at store windows and setting police cars on fire. They heard pundits condemning the violence and thuggery, and their curiosity was piqued. They were very interested, and I decided that since they are almost 11 years old, they should be able to watch parts of this particular current event unfolding live on TV.

First they asked me why people were doing this. I told them most people were protesting peacefully, but that some felt the need to protest in a more violent manner, possibly to draw media attention to their extreme opposition to the summit and what it represents. This segued into a long discussion about the G20 and people's possible objections to it. But what stuck with my kids were the images of broken store widows and burning police cars. They began to parrot the politicians' and TV pundits' harsh condemnations of the perpetrators, with one of my daughters being slightly more nuanced in her view of what should happen to these people than the other. They both agreed that the Black Bloc rock-throwers and fire-setters needed to be apprehended and punished, though one thought several years in prison would be appropriate punishment, while the other thought a few months in jail, or possibly a stern talking-to might do the trick.

I then threw them for a loop by pointing out that the non-peaceful protesters were targeting things, not people, and the things they were targeting were—to them, anyway—symbols of larger things that they were opposed to. "They didn't actually hurt any people," I said. "Does that make a difference in how they should be treated?" My one daughter was shocked that I would even ask such a question. She'd just finished hearing commentator after commentator condemning the "violence," without making any distinction between violence against people and violence against things. I reassured my daughters that I was not condoning the tactics of these protesters, and that I do believe destruction of property is wrong. But I told them that to me, it does make a difference that the violence was directed against things, not people. One daughter saw my point of view right away, and tended to agree (which just goes to show how easily influenced some children are!). The other stuck to her guns, and tried to argue in her confused 10-year-old way, that violence is a continuum, and the Black Bloc protesters were of the same kind as those who do violence against people. Basically bad people, though not as bad as murderers, she conceded.

What to make of this? I really don't know. I have learned that it is difficult to talk to children about political issues without being heavy-handed, without trying to shove your own views down their throats. But as parents, I think we need to try to shut up a little, ask questions rather than supply answers, and allow our kids to think, even if what they end up thinking doesn't always dovetail with our own values. After all, kids will change their thinking on issues many times during their childhood and adolescence. They need to be able to grope their way through various provisional positions on current affairs, en route to some sort of—possibly always provisional—adult position. So for now I have one "law-and-order" child and one incipient civil libertarian. I can live with that.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Homework in TO

This spring we have been drowning in homework, despite the fact that it has been two years since the new, less-is-more Toronto homework policy came into effect. Today, I am guest blogger over at, the blog of Sara Bennett, co-author of the Case Against Homework. My (two-part) post is called The Toronto Homework Policy After Two Years: One Parent's Perspective. Take a look at part 1 and part 2.


Monday, May 3, 2010

Project Hell

Projects. How do I hate them? Let me count the ways. Before I count, though, some background. My twin daughters, who are in grade five French immersion, attend school in the Toronto District School Board, which revised its homework policy in 2008. The new policy, which was intended drastically to reduce the homework load of Toronto students in all grades, took effect in September 2008. In a future post I will examine the new policy in detail and evaluate the effect it has had (or not had) on homework in my daughters' school. For now, suffice it to say that given that my daughters have been assigned four projects in one term (this one), the effect of the new policy has not been as great as one might have hoped.

Now back to the the ways of, and reasons for, hating projects. In Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish's book The Case Against Homework, there is a section entitled "The Homework Hall of Shame" in which the authors list examples of egregiously unreasonable projects assigned to real students (sent to them by real parents). Projects such as building a volcano from scratch out of materials found in the house, or baking sixty decorated cookies in one evening to celebrate the Day of the Dead. It should be obvious that assignments such as these are pedagogically useless, but clearly it is not obvious enough or teachers would not continue to assign them. So here, set forth in plain language, are some of the reasons why the vast majority of projects are to be feared and hated, and one hopes abolished:

1. Most projects are beyond the capacity of students to organize. For instance, my daughter was recently involved in a three-way partner project on ancient Greece comprised of a written report, an arts and crafts component, and a dramatic presentation (costumes required!). This combination of elements proved beyond the capacity of three ten-year-olds to organize. The very divvying up of the work was beyond them. One child would decide to write on a certain aspect of the topic, only to learn later that one of her partners had chosen an almost identical aspect. The arts and crafts component (building a model of an ancient Greek temple) was impossible to divvy up physically because it had to be carried out at one house. Ours was the lucky house, and my daughter and my husband ended up doing all the work on the temple because the partners were rarely available to come over to assist. Which leads to my second reason for hating projects.

2. Projects invite and in fact necessitate a great deal of parental involvement. In the case of partner projects, parents must organize numerous work "play dates" which, given contemporary children's schedules, is a logistical nightmare. Parents are also called upon to provide supplies, help with research (see number 4 below) and supervise arts and craft activities. In my case, I must also play the role of typist because my daughters' teacher demands that all written assignments be printed out, despite the fact that her ten-year-old students have never formally been taught keyboarding (see blog post Keyboard v. Cursive). I've heard teachers complain that projects are difficult to grade fairly because parents are too involved. Well, here's an idea: don't invite parents in! Don't assign partner projects; allocate sufficient time in class for students to complete all parts of the project (including any arts and crafts component); and allow all written parts to be handwritten.

3. Three words: arts and crafts. The most fundamental problem with arts and craft-type projects is the mismatch between the stated learning goal and the activity assigned. Building a model of a famous building or sketching a body part might conceivably demonstrate whether a child can work well with her hands or possesses any drawing talent. What it does not demonstrate is her intellectual understanding of the subject in question. I can't draw people to save my life—I'm stuck at the stick man level—but I actually do know a fair amount about human anatomy. Why is this simple fact of the disconnect between project activity and project goal—a mismatch remarked upon often by my ten-year-old daughters—so difficult for many teachers to understand?

4. One word this time: Google. Google is a great source of information, a wonderful research tool— for adults. For kids it is entirely inappropriate as a resource of first resort. Even for adults, it is often difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff on Google, so how is a child of ten or eleven or even younger supposed to do this? Furthermore,whatever happened to the notion of teaching things in steps? Surely there is an argument to be made that elementary students should master the skill of gathering information at a library from books and encyclopedias before venturing online. But even if one were to grant that libraries and encyclopedias are becoming obsolete, and that children must focus on learning current research methods, aren't teachers once again inviting too much parental involvement when they suggest that children simply Google their topic? After all, teachers know first-hand that much of the information found on the Internet is unreliable; must they not also concede that it would be a foolish parent indeed who would let a young child surf freely on his or her own?

5. A fifth reason for detesting projects is that they encourage a forced "creativity" that is not actually creative at all. For one of my daughter's recent projects, the students were asked to choose a body part and gather research about it. They were given the choice of three ways to present their research. They could: write a children's story about the body part, hand-drawing illustrations and diagrams to accompany it; they could build a model of their body part and write a report explaining the model; or they could present their research on a Bristol board with a diagram or drawing, a glossary and a report. Now, proponents of projects might argue that the first option, writing a story about a body part, is an educationally valuable assignment, one which encourages kids to think creatively about their material. But the truth is, while my daughters love to draw and write stories, and in fact engage in both activities often and without prompting when they have time, the prospect of writing a story about a body part for pre-schoolers did not particularly interest them. For one thing, being told how to be creative seemed to take the joy out of it for them. But more important, they seemed to sense that the effort-benefit ratio of such an undertaking was skewed. Writing a story targeted at young children, while possibly a worthwhile activity for a language arts class, is of questionable value in the context of a science class. It entails simplifying the knowledge rather extending and deepening it, which is how children are truly challenged, and is what happens when they are being truly creative. In the end, both daughters chose to do the model and the report, because it seemed to be the least work. (Remember they have four projects to complete in this term alone.) So what this project ended up engendering was not creativity but cynicism.

6. Multitasking. Another word, and another reason to hate projects. For the project on ancient Greece mentioned above, there were simply too many elements—written, arts and crafts, dramatic—for fifth graders to wrap their young minds around. As my children were desperately trying to work on and coordinate all three elements of this project, it occurred to me that perhaps the point of modern education is to produce efficient multitaskers. A project like this one certainly does nothing to encourage serious, focused work on a topic, given the number of elements that it forces the child to juggle at one time. As it happened, students in the class focused on the component they felt most comfortable with; however, if the other two parts were deemed weak, the grade was lowered accordingly.

7. Projects eat into weekend family time. I could say that projects eat into weekday family time as well, but I emphasize weekend time because weekday time is already eaten into—not necessarily by extracurricular activities but by regular homework. So, although the new Toronto District School Board homework policy discourages weekend and holiday homework, when else do teachers think models are going to get pasted together, machines built or costumes sewn? I've heard of parents having to cancel family events or forgo weekends away because of projects. Enough said.

I could go on and on, because the reasons to dislike projects are as various and endless as the projects themselves. But seven seems like a good number to end on, lucky or unlucky depending on your cultural perspective. If I'm lucky, my daughters' grade five teacher will never set eyes on this post! (For the record, she is a pleasant, well-meaning person, who just happens to love assigning projects.)

Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Sex Ed

Recently the McGuinty government here in Ontario introduced and then quickly withdrew a new Sex Education curriculum that was to come into effect next September. The cynical interpretation of this rapid flip-flop is that McGuinty caved in to pressure from vocal members of fringe Christian right groups who objected to students in Grade 1 being taught proper body part names (e.g., penis and vagina), and to students in Grade 3 being introduced to "invisible differences" such as homosexuality. Well, this whole debate reminded me of an article I wrote two years ago for the Toronto Star, about my twins' emerging understanding of the notion of "gay." I think it's clear from the article that Grade 3 is not too early but, on the contrary, possibly too late to be introducing the concept of sexual orientation. Here is the link.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The New Report Cards: D (Achievement falls much below the parental standard)

My daughters' school was one of 19 in the Toronto District School Board that participated in a pilot program designed to test new, improved elementary report cards. In the second term report card—issued March 3—teachers were able to choose from a bank of comments that have been, according to the TDSB, simplified and purged of unnecessary jargon. The pilot project was spearheaded by school Trustee Howard Goodman who was responding to long-standing complaints by parents about the language used in report cards in Ontario. There is no question that the comments section of the old report cards was jargon-heavy. Take, for instance, this written assessment accompanying my daughter's mark in writing from last term's report card (grade 5):

In writing, with a high degree of effectiveness, [. . .] can identify and order main ideas and supporting details and group them into units that could be used to develop several linked paragraphs in order to write narrative texts.

The trouble with this sentence is not only the educational jargon and awkward construction (in a note on writing!), it is also that, as with most of the other comments, the wording is lifted practically verbatim from the abstrusely written guidelines of the reformist, Harris-era curriculum. (In fact, I would argue that much of the animosity towards the language of report cards is in reality animosity towards a curriculum whose pedagogical clarity and soundness many parents question. But that is an issue for another post.) Goodman has pointed out that provincial law does not require teachers to draw comments from curriculum documents; the habit of doing so, he believes, results in parents having a hard time understanding the written assessments. I find this attitude a bit patronizing. Yes, the writing is full of jargon; it is awkward, inelegant, you name it. But any reasonably intelligent, literate adult can understand it. Granted, as Goodman also points out, there are many parents in the Toronto area whose first language is not English, and for that reason alone, simplification of the comment bank is justified. The new comments are indeed simpler. Here, for example, is the new writing comment from my daughter's second term report card (same daughter, same mark):

In Writing, [. . . ] competently produces a variety of written pieces (procedures, opinions, and marketing[!]) for various reasons.

Simpler yes, more informative, no. The real failing—of both the old and the new comments, and by extension, both the old and the new report cards—is that they are completely impersonal. I find it especially revealing that my other daughter, who is in the same class and who achieved slightly different marks in writing, received identical comments for this subject in the fall and winter reports. In fact, although my daughters could not be more different—not in ability, but in the particular nature of their abilities—their comments in both report cards are virtually indistinguishable.

What is abundantly clear to me, then, is that neither the first nor the second term comments tell me anything about my daughters' specific skills: about how, for instance, one has taught herself to rhyme in French because she enjoys writing poetry (my daughters are in French immersion), or how the other has worked especially hard on her composition, learning to use verb books and dictionaries because she wants to express herself more precisely and accurately in French. The comments tell me, in other words, absolutely nothing that pertains to my actual children. And that is the problem with comment banks in general, simplified or not.

To their credit, Goodman and the people at TDSB have used the occasion of report card reform to encourage teachers to exercise the option of using more personal comments. The reality is that most teachers, presented with a comment bank, will use it. I don't even really fault them for this. I'm not one of those parents who believe teachers have too much time on their hands—quite the contrary: I know they work extremely hard. I understand that preparing report cards is grueling, time-consuming work. Nevertheless, I think comment banks should be gradually phased out, at least for the core subjects, and perhaps teachers could be given a little extra time to prepare report cards. (Reducing the number of graded report cards from three to two, as the Ontario Ministry of Education is proposing, could help, but only if the proposed ungraded fall "progress report" does not end up replicating, via standardized comments, the graded winter and spring reports.) One sentence about an actual, flesh-and-bones child would speak volumes more than any statement, however complicated or simple, drawn from a list of impersonal, one-size-fits-all comments.

Footnote: When I asked my daughters what they thought of the new comments, they both told me that they didn't notice a difference because they don't read them, focusing instead on the actual marks. When I asked why, one daughter said that the comments aren't important because they're just general remarks about what they're learning. End result: student preoccupation with grades, which I'm sure is not the TDSB's intention—or is it?

Thanks for reading. NorthTOmom

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Keyboard vs. Cursive

Several weeks ago my daughters arrived home from school with rough drafts—written in French, as they are in French Immersion—of their first book report of the year. They had chosen difficult books, but since their reading skills are strong, that didn't worry me. I read both books myself so I could help them with the reports if need be, though the teacher had warned them, as she frequently does, not to let parents do the work. I understand the teacher's concern. My twins are now ten years old, in grade five. I realize that I should not be as involved in their school work as I might have been even two years ago. I don't actually want to be involved; as each year passes, and I convince the girls to stay for lunch in the "horrific" (their word) lunchroom one or two days a week, my elusive dream of finally "getting a life" seems...well, slightly less elusive.

But—and here's the kicker—the teacher has stated that henceforth all written material should be handed in printed out from the computer. To that end, the children are given access during class time to the school's computers to input their masterpieces. But there's a problem. Neither of my girls can keyboard to save their lives. In Ontario, there is no formal instruction in keyboarding in elementary school. Students in grades four and five at my daughters' school have been introduced to a computer typing program called UltraKey, but instruction is sporadic and it seems to have taught them nothing. Yet teachers are increasingly asking for assignments to be handed in typed.

I realize that many ten-year-olds can and do keyboard regularly. They're emailing or texting friends, surfing the Internet, instant messaging, etc. My kids are not among them. I am not a Luddite by any stretch of the imagination. I was using email and surfing the Internet back in the late eighties when most of my friends had not yet bought their first PC. Today, I own multiple computers and although my daughters don't use them much, they are quite enamoured of their Nintendo DS's. They do not have a strong interest in the Internet, or email or texting, so they have not learned to keyboard through these activities. For my part, I simply don't understand why my kids must type their assignments at this stage. I would rather see them at a desk with a pen and paper than sitting in front of a computer tapping away with two fingers—for the same reason that I prefer to see them reading a book than playing a video game.

There is also a class issue at play here: we do at least possess computers on which, theoretically, my children could learn to type. What of the many students in less affluent neighbourhoods who don't have access to a computer at home? Is it fair to ask these students to type their assignments? In any case, the the real question is: if the Ministry or school boards or teachers want students in grades four and five to hand in printed documents, why is keyboarding not taught in a thorough and systematic way? Especially since cursive, mentioned perfunctorily at best in the new Ontario Language Arts curriculum, has been more or less dropped from the curriculum.

Which leads to another problem: the decline of cursive. If my girls can't keyboard to save their lives, neither can they write (as opposed to print) with any degree of confidence or competence. They began learning cursive in grade two, spent a little more time on it in grade three, and then it was summarily dropped, presumably due to some new policy (but try finding any real information on this issue on the Ministry of Education website). I'm not arguing that cursive is the be all and end all of writing tools. I'm not advocating bringing back the quill or fountain pens, or Latin. But shouldn't a child who will one day be an adult be able to sign his or her name? In cursive? Apparently the powers that be at the Ministry of Education do not think so. I've sent an email to the Ministry asking when and why cursive was dropped from the curriculum and how and when formal instruction in keyboarding will replace it. I'll let you know if/when I receive a response.

But back to the book report. With hand-printed rough drafts beside them, my girls dutifully sat at the school computer and later at our laptop at home typing with two fingers, sometimes spending 30 seconds or more simply looking for a letter or an elusive accent key. After watching their fumbling, painstaking efforts for several minutes, I'd had enough. I typed in the damned reports myself in all of fifteen minutes, and proceeded to write a letter to the teacher asking that henceforth my daughters be allowed to hand in all assignments handwritten. The fallout? Stay tuned!

(See also, Keyboard vs. Cursive—Update)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Introduction: Parenting is Hell

Parenting is hell. Parenting is work—much of it pure drudgery, in fact—with little "real world" reward or status. Stay-at-home-parents, most of whom are still women, have their own special ring of hell allocated to them. I inhabit that ring, though I also belong to the generation of women who had, in theory at least, all options open to them. It isn't as if I chose not to pursue a career. I dabbled in editing, publishing, freelance writing. I completed a BA, then an MA. I drifted again, thinking the world would eventually come to me, as it had to my older, baby-boomer siblings. (I was on the tail end of the boom, the edging-towards-bust end.) The world laughed, and I went back to graduate school—started, completed most of a PhD. in English. I got caught up in the world of "theory." I "theorized" about a lot of things, not just literature. I theorized that having children would be ruinous to any remaining possibility I might have of succeeding in a career. A friend of mine, a fellow graduate student, told me, "if you're going to have a child be prepared to "put your life in the shredder." Another who had recently had a baby, told me point blank, "there is no me."

But yet . . . .You're probably thinking, here comes the sentimental part, how I met a suitable partner (that would be true), and decided to have children, and it was all worth it in the end. Well, yes and no. I met a suitable partner and we agonized for years over whether or not to have a child. We did not just worry about how such a life-altering act would affect our still inchoate careers. We also wondered what two curmudgeonly, pretentiously cynical, Foucault-reading people could offer children. We saw how boomers around us handled parenthood and we cringed. Hyper-scheduled, under-disciplined, over-privileged children; stressed-out, over-involved, pseudo-democratic parents using soothing monotones when addressing their out-of-control charges. ("Now, Johnnie, do you want to talk about your feelings around biting Jessica?") But in the end we chose to pursue parenthood for the somewhat banal reason that we worried we might regret it later if we chose not to.

Irony of ironies (okay, it's not really irony, I know that from my grad studies but, thankfully, now I don't have to care), I became pregnant with not one, but two babies. I had a horrifically nauseous pregnancy, quit grad school, and the rest is . . . well, our particular hell.

But, I have to add (and this is why I think parents, or mothers at least, have a hard time being writers, because every little thing we do or say in the public realm affects or has the potential to affect our children), I love my kids to death. But I don't love all kids, and I don't love being a mother. My twins are now ten years old. To the world it looks as if in ten years I have done nothing (see Meg Wolitzer's insultingly titled The Ten Year Nap). But there is nothing more arduous, more physically and psychologically—and yes, intellectually—demanding than staying at home with children. Which I chose to do because 1) I still had no career to speak of 2) I didn't understand how anyone not related to my kids could possibly care enough about them to do a good job raising them and 3) circumstances related to my partner's job allowed me financially to do this.

Okay, okay, but the title of this blog-to-be is: Parenting is Political. I do not think that we need another "Bobby had the most awesome poop today" type of blog. There are many, many blogs that document the day-to-day realities of parenting very well. That is not my intention. In my grad school days I learned and took to heart the adage "the personal is political." I still believe it to be true, though not in any simple way. I especially believe it to be true when it comes to parenting. When I am at home with a child in tears and me with heart palpitations over a ridiculous "media studies" project, this is not just a personal predicament. To me, it is a socio-political predicament, one that is not adequately addressed in the socio-political sphere. Even when parenting issues become political issues—for example, the availability, or lack thereof, of daycare—the coverage and commentary is at best superficial. The hard right in both the US and Canada (where I live) sees parenting as a purely personal, pay-as-you-go enterprise. (Yet, interestingly, most of them send their children to public schools.) The liberal left sees parenting issues as political only in the most narrow, superficial sense: pre-school education good, daycare good, and that's about where it ends. Never discussed or debated is the fact that earlier and earlier education may not be good for children (but it is indeed good for working parents, which is not the same thing, though not insignificant either); the example of countries
such as Finland, where formal education does not begin until the age of 7, and yet whose educational outcomes are second to none, is rarely brought to bear on the public discussions of the importance of early schooling. What if what we needed was better, later schooling? Or salaries for parents staying at home taking care of their own children? The truly radical possibilities are endless. It is these possibilities—born of the personal, but dragged kicking and screaming into the realm of the political—that I would like to explore in this blog.

Thanks for reading.